Sun Untouchable

by Nikolay Telallov


Translated by Kalin Nenov



INTRODUCTION


Hope springs eternal.

(Isaac Asimov)


Вы в огне да и в море вовеки не сыщете брода...1

(Vladimir Vysotsky, 1976)



▶ 1989:

I was trying to make sense of it. I searched, skipping between myself and the just-as-hazy outside. All those ordinary events, phenomena... At times, I would find something inscrutable and mysterious in even the simplest of processes.

So what?

My own thoughts kept me from finding out. I tried to switch them off. I cannot say for sure, but once I think I managed to, briefly. Yet, the void offered me nothing but a fiercer desire to discover my own place; a lure to keep seeking!

But why did I desire it so much? Was there anything in my life then that I was not content with? I do not mean accomplishments, results, points won, hopes fulfilled or destroyed, realized or abandoned plans, tiny and great alike. I mean life itself.

No. I had no well-defined objections. Everything was all right. It really was.

Yet, there was something missing at the core. From where else would spring this sense of alienness I felt? No, that is not exactly what it was... There were no words to express it.

For hours, I would dumbly ask myself, “Who am I? Why am I? What am I?”, like a mantra, hoping that once the sentences turned into empty sounds, the pure, genuine question would crystallize, a question that would be an answer in itself...

I never reached it.

I sensed I had to go ... beyond myself?

I was certain that there I would feel, if not better, at least ... natural.

Is it in fact an idiotic wish? “Wish” is a weak word. Yearning it is, hunger! But these too, they are faint thrills of the air passing from the lungs across the vocal folds. Even thought, emotion, call it what you will – it is too fine a matter itself, an unharnessed element, unexpressed directed energy which would put in motion...

...the transformation? the rebirth? the reVIVAL?

To hell with it! The direction faded again, the power dissipated into emptiness.

I needed to lay my finger on it; I was horrified by the prospect of spending my entire life as the captive of a deception, an illusion, chasing a world that was real only inside my soul.

Still, it is natural for any living being to seek, even unconsciously, okay, mostly unconsciously, instinctively, the most favorable environment for it. Which is why a moth acts anything but dumb when it flies toward the light. To it, light is good, it is its life. And if that light is the sun, or an electric bulb, or a gas lamp, a candle, the open door of an oven – that's another question... An excellent example of a true goal and false points of reference. How could a moth tell them apart without trying? To say nothing of those instances, like the open oven, when you cannot give up once you’ve started, because the air current does not let you stop on the threshold, the deceitful light attracts, draws in not just the consciousness but the body itself, the feeble wings cannot resist the savage suction...

Until the sizzle and the end.

...Was I not such a moth? And what is more, a moth attracted by the flame kindled by its own imagination.

I thought I had no imagination. I merely noticed links between divergent and incomparable things. Not likenesses, not resemblance. Links. I could not explain it to the people around me. I could not explain it even to myself when I had to use words, names. Even if those names were never voiced, just thought.

Yet another dissolution into emptiness. This key is not for this keyhole.

I seem to understand the puzzlement of that Buddhist monk who asked himself if he was a man dreaming of being a butterfly or a butterfly dreaming of being a man … and I could never tell which was true. What was objective, what did not depend on thought – like quarks, protons, neutrons, stars and galaxies?

So, unlike that monk, I had tied myself in desperate knots. I was like a man dreaming of being a butterfly dreaming of being a man... Or the other way round? Damn...

And still, I – no, I did not believe, I knew, knowledge and belief belong to different spaces – I was convinced that there must be, there is an unequivocal answer to the riddle who dreams whom and what he really is.

I had to find a way to tell apart the dream and my waking hours, phantasms and reality. I only needed an algorithm, a tool, a knife for cutting off what was false. For weeding my garden. For revealing the always simple, always clear truth. The truth about that small thing that was me. After all, I matter to myself, don’t I?

And what if I accept the “truth” surrounding me … I could, yes, why not? I will hunker down under the cozy shelter of conventional conceptions of the world and myself. I will feel like in a nuclear bunker, like a bear in his winter den, like a child hiding from his nightmares under a blanket … but more probably, like a bug that has covered itself with a dry leaf against the cold – the wind will blow and leave me naked, a hen will scratch the ground and gulp me down, a pair of lovers will play tag beneath the fall trees – crack! with a sole … and I’ll be gone.

Or, in the best case – I’ll be back in the open. Tete-a-tete, alone with myself. And with that inscrutable, unreachable, untouchable thing – my secret...

Where is the path, the key, the answer? How? ...It is all white noise again, reflections in a vicious circle where rather than the truth, your teeth bite your bum ... or tail … urrrgh, missed again...

By the way, about the bum. Mine has already gone raw from sitting on the slab of concrete that stands for bleachers at our field. The field itself looks like an ordinary meadow, with cows grazing at one edge. Yet the game is about to start: the local amateur soccer players are gathering; some are kids, some, my age, some, men who’ve brought up daughters old enough to marry; all of them donning shorts, some of them shaking bellies. They dish out the long-suffering black and white T-shirts, with fading numbers on them. Now they’re going to toss for who plays for which team. Here comes Old Man Fimcho, shuffling along with his cane. The keenest fan of all. He'll be disappointed today though – our homebred swarthy Pelé pricked his foot on a rusty nail and feels so bitter now that he's not going to show up at the “stadium” at all. It pains him to merely watch, without playing.

A country Saturday afternoon.

It takes over the physical space of my ruminations, displaces me. I have to go, I’m becoming the odd man out...

Merhaba, Vanko, let's kick it! Or you're on the jump? C'mon man! Loser team treats everyone at Nacho's!

Most of them got their paychecks yesterday.

Ha! I'm seeking myself, and they're calling me to kick a ball. Fancy that. Is it the same world that we live in?

Hmmm … why not then? In sports and in love, it sucks to play the onlooker.

Although the ancient sage Pythagoras said more than twenty-five centuries ago: life is a game; some come to compete, others, to trade, and the most fortunate ones, to watch...

I toss a small coin into the cap. The teams will be led by brothers-in-law Stavri and Stoyan, the two eternal rivals in just anything, and so, inseparable hand and glove. It's a common joke around the neighborhood about the two brothers-in-law arguing, over a glass of brandy, whose wife is prettier and sweeter. Never mind that their better halves are twins, and equally ornery too.

Hmm … could it be that twins share the same soul?

While I'm mulling over abstruse subjects yet again, the captains take turns reaching into the cap for the lots. Happy or disappointed exclamations accompany our splitting into two teams. We slip the T-shirts on and then, in lieu of warming-up, exchange threats with our opponents.

The game begins.

No – it goes on. Life is motion and running. And, oh how funny, chasing after an empty ball.

Ah...

Pass it on, you klutz! Jeez, you missed that?! Why did I end up in the sorriest team!!! Argh, golly!...


* * *

A moonless night shrouded by clouds. The gleam of a city plays on their underbellies, and if you stare intently at the top of a hillock that some call a Thracian burial mound, you may discern two shadows. One is black and distinct: a young man.

The other would be invisible in brighter light. It flickers like the tongue of an old graveyard night-light, like the Pleiades star cluster in the eyes of a poor-sighted man. It looks like steam from one's mouth on a moonless night. It is the slender ethereal shape of a woman, perhaps lovely, although even the young man next to her cannot make out her features. The gossamer silhouette sways over a hole sheltering field-mice or whipsnakes and lizards. And she talks. She speaks softly, and the man listens. Probably he barely hears her; take a step to one side, and her voice would blend with the rustle of the nearby poplars. Around the two, however, the wind keeps quiet.

The young man shuffles on his feet. There is a call-up notice waiting for him at home. He is due to start his military service on September 8. The folks at the command have not forgotten about him, they have not. He has less than two weeks to revel and frolic to his heart's content, before the belated conscription. He does not wish for more. He almost looks forward to that date.

The spectral woman ends her monologue and asks a question.

“Yes,” he replies, “we've reserved the tavern in our neighborhood. The fete is in five days.”

“Fete” drips with acid. He thinks of the invitations he carried around: an idea that would have struck him as amusing in different circumstances, say, last year... There were rabbits in uniforms and berets on the cards, with carrots instead of rifles across their shoulders. The darkness conceals his grimace.

You are harboring hope for some twist of events,” the woman says. “You deem your soldiership a salvation. Yet, it is a flight.”

He keeps silent, turning his face to the city. Reflections gleam inside his pupils.

Master your temper,” she insists. “Now that I have told and uncovered the whole truth to you! For you cannot escape from yourself.

“What should I do then?” the young man asks in a muffled voice.

The shadow extends a wisp of glimmer, as if meaning to stroke his hair, he takes a step back. The woman cannot follow. She merely says, “Learn. Seek. Wait. Your Path has not been traced like unto a bridge across a river. You mayhap need to meander awhile, now that what I had devised did not come to occur. Pray, refrain from foolishness! Come to your senses! In vain would you make war on this world. It is not the best place to act so. If worst comes to worst, you are going to be HERE until you grow up...

The man thinks over all he has heard and suddenly waves about his arms. “Worst comes to worst. What can be worse than this?! Plans! Why did you have to have me born in this crappy land if—”

Slaaap!

He – and maybe she – has not expected, has not believed he could be hit, yet there it is – the impossible has occurred. The smack does not merely set his face on fire, it penetrates deeper, savagely stinging his soul tossing about in its cage. The words that follow grip his throat with razor-sharp syllables.

Dare not utter this any more! This land is sacred, you foolish pup! Twenty-five ighas ago, my kin committed their dead to the Sun from here, from this country! And in the veins of the people here, our blood flows too! And has soaked into this earth! Dare not! It has been but a half asu since we left these parts, that is why I brought and sowed you to live, as I had vowed, in this land of all others. How could I know it had changed...” Her tone softens. Perhaps because the startled youth steps back, recedes from her. “You would be Home nowhere but here, son! I have not borne your flesh inside me, yet your soul was below my heart. You have been marked by that, it cannot be helped. And that is also why elsewhere you would have felt more wretched, darling... I hurt for you, but how am I to help you, how!... You must find your Path on your own, my child, on your own... Stay, forgive me! Son! Child...

But he was already running down the slope, ripping across the scrub, and then down, along the cart-track leading to a narrow road. In the dark, he barely avoided crashing into the stonework watering trough. He dashed on, terrified that he might hear someone call to him from the hillock.

He leaped onto the road but did not halt, although pain shot in the right side of his ribcage, his heart thu-thudded in his chest, and he could no longer say which half it was located in. He wheezed and gulped the heavy air left behind by the sultry day. On the top of that hill, it had been cool. He sobbed in between gasps, trotted along the asphalt, zigzagged left and right, like swallows did in the daylight low above the ground.

He tripped and fell, rolled over, his body slipped like a locked-up tire. He sat up groaning with the pain in his bruised hands, knees and elbows; his pants and sleeves were torn.

He sat swaying to and fro in the middle of the road. He collected himself, rose, groaning, and hobbled down towards the lights of the village where he lived. His thoughts raced between hydrogen peroxide, bandages and Rivanol. And something to help his headache. And a couple of sleeping pills.

Far behind him, the hill rose forlornly.


* * *

No-one but the officer in charge of the task force knew the purpose of the trench. Even the two sergeants had no clue who they were trying to tickle with all this digging. The soldiers had been detached from three bases and different battalions, so they did not know one another. And while at first they showed natural boyish curiosity, the toil quite soon suppressed all emotions but a muted hatred. Whether a power cable for the nearest border outpost would fill the ditch, or a land-line, or else some pipes – who cared? None of the youths did any longer. It might in fact serve no purpose at all – it might be digging for digging's sake, for the sake of finding an occupation for nineteen-year-old nitwits who had not had enough connections to fix themselves with a sweeter service.

They were expected to yield a pit seven kilometers long. Width: enough to fit the pickaxe, spade, and soldier; depth: a meter and a half beneath the terrain. The grumpy first lieutenant measured the trench with a graduated rod. They all hated the rod and the lieutenant.

Every morning, two ZIL-131 trucks waited for the youths at an out-of-the-way, long-forsaken train station with a single rust-eaten track ending under a mound of cross-ties and dirt. The mixed task force spent the nights in a shed by the rails, probably a former warehouse. Each day, two people stayed in the “camp” to look after the stove and the cleanliness in the makeshift “dorm”. They also had to guard the object, armed with assault rifles. Usually the lucky guys slept through the day behind the barred door of the ramshackle brick-house.

At daybreak – a quarter past five – the trucks set off and arrived at the site around six. The soldiers leaped down, sleepy and sullen, smoked a cigarette, and formed a column, pickaxes, spades and thermoses with hot tea strapped over their shoulders. Their canvas duffel bags held the already-hateful cans and the daily ration of a loaf of bread. The bread quickly grew hard as a rock and completely uneatable, so most of it got gulped down at dinner while it was still fresh and there was warm food to go with it. The dry leftovers were swallowed during the breaks, after getting well-soaked in the sauce from the cans, often warmed up – by request – on the sergeants' gasoline lamp.

After getting down, the column had to cross the forest in order to reach the dratted ditch. They waded through the mud with their flashlights on. Then they dragged camouflage nets in the dark to conceal their work from the frontier, although it was some dozen kilometers away.

They rushed through breakfast, and by then it had grown light enough to start. The dumb bestial toil went on until the evening, with two breaks. Whenever it rained, they stretched tarpaulin groundsheets overhead and went on under them. The youths no longer grumbled. If they opened their mouths at all, it was to curse. Now and then, the lieutenant and the sarges would pick a tool, just to limber up and get warm. This earned them no respect. The soldiers paid no attention to their superiors but kept gashing the earth blindly and spitefully, taking out its stony bones, cutting at its sinews of interwoven roots with their spades and pickaxes. A gray muddy sky above leafless tree-crowns, brown-gray muddy ground, and three dozens of boys in muddy uniforms of homespun. Dark gray greatcoats hung from black branches, next to them belt buckles gleamed yellow and red stars glittered on the berets like drops of blood or wild strawberries.

Whenever it grew cold, the lieutenant sullenly poured a bottle of cheap brandy into the tea urn. The spirits did not fill the soldiers’ hearts with joy, but they filled their bodies with warmth and brought the calloused hands back to life. The plodding went on until dusk. During the last hour of the work day, the boys scratched at the ground with hardly any effect, the officer scuttled about the entire section and quietly, through his teeth, scolded them.

At last, the “retreat” command! The order to fall in brought relief but no joy; tomorrow would be the same. And if in the morning the column had walked without a tad of enthusiasm, in the evening the soldiers downright dragged themselves. Despite their orders, they smoked en route, hiding the lights inside their sleeves. The lieutenant never failed to tell them off.

The column, silent, with paralyzed thoughts, reached the trucks.

Despite the jerks and jolts along the forest road, everyone fell asleep, propped against a pickaxe or a spade. The drive along the asphalt seemed to concrete their sleep, and when they arrived at the station, for at least twenty minutes no-one would budge. The superiors had already given up pestering the soldiers, who would soon wake up on their own and shuffle like sleepwalkers from under the tarpaulin toward the sheds, trudging along their tools. The soldiers on duty, somewhat livelier than their mates, briskly served the meals on top of boxes and placed around folding chairs made of green pipes and canvas, usually used by wireless operators in their mobile control rooms. The sergeants – it was they who drove the ZILs – tossed for who would stay with the soldiers for the night. The dinner was followed by a quick fall-in, the first lieutenant drily announced certain percentages of work completed, listed the surnames of those who had distinguished themselves as well as those who deserved a rebuke, never making clear who belonged to which category. A brief hoarse “hurrah” accompanied taking down the flag, then the soldiers got back into the shed and slumped onto their sleeping mats. The lieutenant left with the free sarge – no-one knew where to, although the youths were convinced the two were going after whores. The sergeant on duty picked two soldiers to stand guard over their sleeping fellows. On the next day, the guards were to stay back as soldiers on duty, yet usually they fell asleep too, embracing their unloaded rifles, trusting their lives to the mangy, restless dog that had eloped with the “mixed platoon”, as the officer preferred calling the riffraff under his command.

The naked bulb in the shed went out, the listless talks among the soldiers quickly faded away.

A pitch-dark silence fell. Only the dog would whimper whenever the half-awake sentry chased him away from the sheepskin coat he had thrown over his greatcoat.

The morning brought more of the same.

And more.

And more.

The trench seemed endless.

But one day, there came a difference.


* * *

The revelation.

How strangely and easily it happened.

It was like suddenly recalling something that you have been straining your mind to rummage through the attics – or perhaps the basements! – of your memory, the thing that has tormented you with its closeness, but also untouchability, the thing that has itched unbearably until you finally bury your nails into it, scratch till it hurts, but the pain is only a detail, a trifling epithet attached to your relief – there it is, there is what has been molesting you for – my, it’s scary even to think about it! YEARS ... yes ... Yes.

Was it truly a good thing though?

Was it truly a victory – to cut through the fused eyelids with a dirty piece of glass ... and see the bars. So dense they barely allow the true reality to seep across; the light beyond them glimmers, offering you no clear picture of what you know you may see.

It is not true that eyes do not behold the truth.

The heart is also blind.

As is the mind – the mind is the liars’ liar, because it lies to itself first.

That is why I wanted to see!

I nearly succeeded...

The surrounding reality is true. Alas. Not less true than mine. How easy it would be to succumb to the consolation that it is an illusion, a folding screen, theatrical scenery which can be nibbled through – ugh, how unsavory this styrofoam tastes, what blandness and bitterness fouls the tongue, these are the remnants of the paint... No, it would not work. You can’t tear down this reality. It is pointless lying to myself. Of course, everything here denies and derides the Revelation, tramples it and stifles it in the dust. The truth cowers like some beast in secret crevices, hiding... Does the truth cease to exist when no-one is aware of it? Even if they call it a lie – they still notice it, yes?... It is even more disheartening this way – the oblivion, the indifferent marching past. And the truth has squeezed itself into its hole where at least it will not get trod down out of sheer carelessness. Should the truth weave any excuses? Put up with anything? Cherish a humiliating hope about the illusoriness of this world, and so deceive itself that if it waits long enough, the sham space-time will rot away, wear out, fall apart ... and only then will it be able to crawl into the sun, to weep for the first time with the bright tears of joy, to wipe its crumpled wings. Poor things, under their dry film of scornful phlegm, they look like leaves from last year’s fall...

I know though – everything is real: both the prison that all the local creatures see as their own universe, and the freedom that lies beyond.

And whatever may come – I know! Whatever they may tell me, whatever I may tell myself in those instants of weakness when I am ready to give up and believe in my own non-existence – I shall know that it is not like that. Has nothing to do with faith. Faith does not endure knowledge, doubt tires it out, evidence makes it angry. I’m just not like you. I’m not more. I’m not less. I’m different. And some day, you will probably force me to confess, deny, die ... yet I ... will know...

And that is why I have not cast this burden off – of knowing; nor will I suppress the suffering that comes of it. You would not understand it anyway – neither the weight, nor my choice not to send it packing – for otherwise you would have to start seeing ... and then you shall be scared. Although I see no reason why. But ... why should I be explaining. No-one wants me to, even when they ask. Questions often get asked just to gag someone.

If I ever get free, you shall not silence me even with an asbestos blanket.

And that is why I keep my grief.

I may be able to make many useful things out of it. To twist a rope out of its painful weeks and months. The hard tentacles that I shred off my throat may serve as a fine rasp for the bars. The heavy lumps, so hard to swallow, may come in handy for shattering the walls.

And then ... then I shall say farewell to you.

Because I’m going home.

...I’ve never been there...


* * *

When the bestialized troops came back for another night in their den, they found a UAZ jeep in front of the shed. The soldiers on duty were erecting a barbed wire fence. The exhausted boys got barked at; not happily and not by the dog, who really enjoyed their presence, but by the major who had popped up for a spot check. His verbal flak targeted everyone, the sergeants and lieutenant included. For two hours, the soldiers had to put their station in order until it became “exemplary”. The major was not satisfied but left anyway.

His ire had been roused the very moment he arrived at the station, at twelve thirty p.m. The sentries were so fast asleep that he had to bang on the door for a quarter of an hour and finally shoot his pistol at the windows below the eaves. However, it was not the shots but tribeless Spotty that woke the soldiers, and got a vicious kick in the ribs by the major, in lieu of gratitude.

The officer wrote down the names of the soldiers at fault, promised them ten days in the cells each (at first, he ranted about a court martial, but then he softened, noting that no property had been stolen. Who'd steal it, there's not a living soul around, vindictively thought the soldiers and the sergeants and the first lieutenant himself), and only then did he light off.

The commanders of the task force set up a new roster so that the soldiers on duty would not be so tired and at least one of them would stay awake on his post.

The lieutenant addressed the downhearted soldiers more humanely than usual. “Nothing to be done, lads. We've got a deadline to complete the trace, a strict deadline. They won't send us any more folks. We're almost there. The cells ... I'll do my best to get them canceled. Now to the point. Three people are going to be on duty, in an overlapping fashion. Each afternoon, one of them will be coming back to the camp to sleep his fill and so keep alert for the night. In the morning, another one will be coming off duty and going to work. This way, each day someone’ll be replacing one of the soldiers on duty. Questions? Off to bed, all of you.”

Yet already on the next day, the soldier who was on duty in the afternoon disappeared from the station. The first lieutenant learned about it just before the end of the workday. The weather had suddenly thrown a tantrum, and the officer ordered the soldiers to line up for going back. Just as they did, several border guards arrived and reported that a fugitive armed with an assault rifle had been shot down at the borderline. Perhaps he is ... he was one of yours?

The events that followed were chaotic, meaningless and unpleasant for everyone involved. The lieutenant pulled himself together only when he got to the station, where he ordered an express inquest to be carried out. Firstly, it was found that a man was missing indeed. He had not belonged to the officer’s regular unit, so the lieutenant could not recall his face. There was something vague, something about his surname, since the soldier had been a hard-working fellow, but his face, his face kept eluding them. Maybe it had been too commonplace to remember. Secondly, the second Kalashnikov was missing, the one that had been personally allocated to one of the sergeants. The sarge broke into sweat, right there in the cold. Thirdly, the other sergeant who had driven the soldier to the camp confessed that they had touched at the village, going an extra twenty-seven kilometers in the process. There, the soldier had entered the post office and placed a phone call. Yet the sergeant had noticed no change in him.

“He was sullen and tired, both before and after. He bought a box of Turkish delight … before he went into the post office, yep. He seems to have left it in the truck.”

The border guards took the lieutenant and a soldier who had known the fugitive to their outpost in order to identify the body. Once there, however, they had to wait. The lieutenant, despite his anguish and anger, noticed signs of inexplicable panic among the rank and file.

“Where’s the victim?” he asked.

“Errr … he hasn’t been fetched yet. It was a fuck-up, totally screwed-up, we got into a skirmish with the Greeks … and then it rained cats and dogs … We were just bickering with their officers, ‘cause that wretch fell inside their no-man’s land, and...”

“When did you … shoot him? What time was it?”

The guard gave an answer to the nearest minute.

An excellent mathematician, the lieutenant did a quick calculation and goggled his eyes.

“Wha?” the guard said.

“It’s nothing.” The officer assumed his usual expression, slightly frowning and unapproachable.

But his head was abuzz. The soldier had left for his shift at 15.25. He must have reached the village by 16-16.10. Around 17 o’clock, he would have surely arrived at the station. And then … rather than rest until midnight when his shift started, he had run all the twelve kilometers to the border in less than an hour, worn-out as he was.

The calculations cheered him up a bit. Probably this was none of his soldiers. The lieutenant heaved a hopeful sigh. It couldn’t have been him. For otherwise … there’d be an inquiry, all sorts of trouble. Might be the end of his army career. No, it’s not him, thank goodness. Yet, the missing man on the roster, the Kalashnikov? Ha! The rookie must have slunk into one of the tumbledown warehouses near the station and be snoring now… With the assault rifle? And all the live cartridges? Now take it easy. It’s physically impossible. Easy, everything will be alright.

An hour later, they brought the body.

They took it out from a jeep on a rubber-coated sheet splattered with blood. The lieutenant stared at the car. “Did he shoot at you?” He pointed at the UAZ.

“No,” grunted the cadet sergeant who had brought the body along with a few soldiers. “We got smashed by hail. Ah, comrade firs’ lieutenant, you can’t imagine what it was like...”

The lieutenant never came to find out what had struck the plebe so badly but he could not help noticing the youth’s white face and his trembling. Fear?

A group of officers approached, all ranked captain and above, and the lieutenant could ask no more questions.

“Take him in somewhere light, for identification,” the outpost commander ordered.

“Where?” the soldiers asked, timidly.

“To the bathroom!” the commander spat out. “So you can wash away this … eyesore!”

He glared at the first lieutenant and made a motion, leaving out any forms of address. “This way.”

Of the sheet-covered body, only the legs were visible, wearing very soiled hobnailed boots. One of the gaiters was missing. There was the smell of gore, urine and feces.

There was the smell of that most hideous thing to everyone still alive – death.

The lieutenant gulped.

“What’s this soldier doing here?” the outpost commander snarled. “Hey, man?”

The soldier could not produce a single sound. He stared at the body as if hypnotized. His hand was trembling.

“He’ll be identifying,” the lieutenant said.

“Don’t you know your own men?”

Holding the lieutenant colonel’s eyes, the officer replied, “Not at all, sir. He is from another base.”

The outpost commander looked as if he were about to yell, but he only waved his hand. “Go on, identify him,” and he hissed something through his teeth. Perhaps he merely drew a breath.

Somebody flung aside the sheet.

Everyone froze, aghast. Everyone but the soldiers who had brought the body. They merely turned their backs to the sight. One leaned against a wall.

The body only remotely resembled human remains. Yellowish shards of bones protruded from charred tatters. The head appeared to have been smashed with a hammer, but from the inside. It looked like some nightmarish garment of flesh and gore the soul had taken off and carelessly thrown away...

After several horror-struck seconds, the soldier that was to identify the body fainted. The lieutenant could not suppress his hysterical outburst. “Is this what I must identify, comrade lieutenant colonel, ha-ha-ha!” And he staggered out, toward the wind, where his stomach turned and spilled its contents, splattering his shoes and legs.

Hiccuping and choking, wiping at his chin, twisting his lips at the taste of gastric juice, the lieutenant wondered what weapon they had used to turn the wretch into this formless, torn pulp, ugh!

He shook with another spasm.

“Comrade first lieutenant...”

It was the cadet sergeant. He held out a towel. A simple cloth. The officer steadied himself and started wiping off the vomit in disgust.

“He’d walked past the detail,” abruptly spoke the plebe, staring straight ahead. “They took after him right away...”

“And?” The lieutenant was done with his clean-up. He was not sure he wished to hear the rest, but he felt obliged to.

“He stood at the line. Right in the no-man’s land. One of our boys shouted to him to come back ... and the Greeks showed up. We yelled at him to throw down the rifle...”

“Was it dark?”

The cadet sergeant was silent for a while. “No … that’s the odd part. It was already dusk, but there was light.”

“Who opened fire?”

“He did. He shot in the air … then it turned out he’d had a single cartridge, the one in the barrel. The magazine was empty. We didn’t find any more cartridges. He must have let off by mistake. And then they blasted him … from both sides. He squirmed like in a movie...” The plebe gulped painfully, closed his eyes and carried on, “At some point, we stopped. Our captain shouted to the Greeks, one of their officers came forth, and they talked. A jeep of ours came, and...”

“What?”

“I thought the fellow … moved.”

The lieutenant looked at the conscript in surprise, as he went on in a colorless voice, “And then the mother of all lightnings struck … never seen anything like it in all my life. The thunder – it wasn’t just like any other but like … like ‘Yes, sir!’, like some giants were hollering they’d smash us to a jelly.”

“Lad!”

But the youth shook his head furiously, as if saying, No, please don’t interrupt me! “There were no clouds overhead, and suddenly one swelled out, just above us, and pelted down hail – a hell of a hail! Like shrapnel. We crouched under our jeep, the Greeks scuttled away. We couldn’t see anything, and it was thundering so… And … someone’d dropped his helmet – the hail turned it into a sieve, comrade first lieutenant! It belted us for five minutes. And then … stopped. And...”

“What’s with those and’s, cadet sergeant! Speak up!”

“I’m afraid, comrade first lieutenant.”

The officer choked. The plebe gazed at him from huge childlike eyes, a sea of terror swirling inside.

“I heard voices in the cloud.”

“What?!”

The plebe was staring at his shoes now. Hoarsely, he said, “There wasn’t a single piece of ice by the body, and everything around was white. And I’m positive, comrade first lieutenant: earlier the victim had not looked so … so...” The youth retched and darted somewhere. Definitely not to the bathroom.

The officer stood still, smitten with the story. It came back to him that the wretch had looked like a discarded garment. It also came to him no-one deserved to die because of that dratted ditch. He gritted his teeth and resolutely went back to where he had so pusillanimously run away from.

They had covered the body again, but the lieutenant remembered it vividly. He would remember this sight from the late fall of 1989 for a long time. He did not yet know there would be changes in the country soon. He would remain convinced that the poor silly lad had been gunned down with dum-dum bullets, for what else could have burst him up like that … as if the innards had tried to leap unharmed out of the execution.

Unwittingly, he had touched upon an unimaginable truth. It is very much the same as brushing against a cherry-tree twig with your fingertips, while the train carries you onward, along its tracks, never straying, never stopping needlessly. In the same fashion, consciousness, speeding along the tracks of the logic it has chosen, unfalteringly reaches its destination, draws conclusions, and their substantiality, reinforced by the effort spent to arrive at them, serves to convince it how genuine the surrounding reality is. And yet the truth – the truth has been left back there, by the tracks, swaying in the breeze, needed by no-one. But even if the lieutenant had familiarized himself with the full reports on the accident, he would have never linked them to the actual events. An insight like that would have required one assumption he could not have made.

It was too improbable. Too fantastic. Too far beyond the worldview of any normal person. And yet, he had touched the truth … and it would long haunt his dreams.

...a nightmarish garment of flesh and gore the soul had taken off and carelessly thrown away...


* * *

Here I am, alone again.

He’s gone. The others escorted him to that place from where they think there’s no coming back – but I alone did not. I was there, I grieved, but I believed! … I believed.

I waited for him. A long time. He never came. And I thought, he’s found happiness back Home, and he’s relishing it, he can’t break away from it!

And then I told myself, he would have come to share it, to reassure me he’s alright. Therefore... Therefore there’s no world he has gone to. He is simply gone.

Forever.

He abandoned me. I miss him. The only one like me. My closest Friend. How could I have him otherwise here, where words are used for lies, where whispers kill, where love and insults are voiced likewise, where caring for and humiliating often sound alike...

Earlier, when I missed him, I would open the folder with his quaint poems he had dedicated and presented to me. He used to type them on a typewriter whose ‘r’ button had been worn out. They told of other worlds, vaguely, timidly … sorrowfully. Just like that song of the exiles: “Illumined by the rays of sundown...”2. He illumined his verses with his homesickness. I failed to comprehend them because I was afraid of what he might be. I confess that. I’m not afraid of confessing my fear.

Even if there was a Lower Earth – it was not for me.

He abandoned me. What else could I do but fall asleep again, just like before he came flying, before I saw his true face and sensed the whiff of his wings, the wings he himself could not see!

And so my soul slept, fell into a lethal lethargy, along the edge of non-existence.

My body, however, remained. To do, robotlike, everything for me.


* * *

The bursts died down, and the border guards rushed to the body, absurdly sprawled amidst the plowed, wire-enclosed strip of land. However, they were met by the warning shouts of other soldiers and, here and there, by the threatening brandish of US automatic rifles.

The Bulgarians bristled with Kalashnikovs, but no-one wished to shoot any more.

On both sides of the line, there almost simultaneously roared jeeps. Officers poured out and started yelling above the soldiers’ heads; if anyone’s nerves gave way, the accident would blow up to the shittiest proportions possible.

The Bulgarian officer spoke in Greek, his colleague and adversary replied in pidgin Bulgarian. After a short exchange, they ordered their soldiers to slope arms. Negotiations went on for a couple of minutes, the tone was gradually calming down. The Greek commander even cracked a joke that the Warsaw Pact and NATO had just begun to settle their relationships, and now the wicked Balkanеers... The opposite side laughed their nervous consent.

A thunder deafened everyone, and only the dazzling lightning prevented them from shooting one another.

Above the crouching adversaries, a black-and-purple cloud fermented out of the low gray sky. It fizzled, a multi-colored hiss picked up strength, the officers on both sides stood with outstretched hands, their hoarse cries that no-one open fire drowning in the growing rumble from on high.

A hailstorm hit them. Like a stage curtain, it fell upon the furrow, and mere seconds later, chased away the fighters, driving them wild with its ferocity. Icy bullets bashed people, cracked car windows, dented helmets. Hands and guns over their heads, all uniformed men squeezed into the jeeps, squiggled under them, before anyone got hurt. And then everyone gaped at the hail. The ground was quickly turning white, the visibility was practically zero, even the lightnings could not pierce the hard-edged torrent, merely illuminating the collapsed horizon with blood-red flashes, while thunders shook bodies and machines.

Afterward, a junior cadet sergeant and a forty-year-old warrant officer fervently tried to convince friends and superiors that in the rumble of the storm they had been hearing voices. Voices woven by the storm itself. Devils’ voices. Their reports earned them treatment at the Military Hospital in Sofia. Psychiatrists took care of them, but that turned out to be not so bad compared to the parleys of the Counter-reconnaissance and military investigators with the other participants in the accident. Even if something similar took place on the Greek side of the border, no-one learned about it in the next eight or nine years.

The storm subsided to a downpour literally five minutes after, and a few seconds later, the elements of the sky turned the tap down to a drizzle. The hail-bearer dissolved into the general clouds. Their hushed surroundings deafened the men no less than the previous cracks of Prophet Elijah. Or ancient Zeus.

Soldiers, sergeants, and officers incredulously crept out of their coverts. The mud was strewn with melting pieces of ice the size of large chestnuts.

Bulgarians and Greeks turned their eyes toward the borderline … and startled bilingual exclamations called to Orthodox saints, Mother Mary and her bastard. The Bulgarians did not blaspheme, yet everyone whispered a single “God”, although few made to cross themselves.

Their later claims that the hail had disfigured the violator’s body did not sound plausible to the investigators – but they could not be disproven either.

The Greeks hotly urged the Bulgarians to pick up what belonged to them, yet the officers’ discussion across the line went on for quite some time, after chasing away the lower ranks well out of earshot.

Things slid into the regulated tracks of military bureaucracy, amazingly similar on both sides of the border in its desire to wash its hands and kick any responsibility as far down the ladder as possible.

Nevertheless, there had to be punishments and rewards. Under the veil of military secrecy and after one more meeting at the borderline, a phone call and an agreement with the military attache (who received nineteen squashed M-16 bullets), the bloodied page was turned and oversewn in a top secret report. All witnesses of the accident signed a non-disclosure statement.

The identification of the murdered pioneer took slightly longer.

In the meantime, a political takeover happened in Bulgaria that seemed to muffle the tragedy forever.


* * *

The subsequent fate of the former first lieutenant was rarely fortunate. Degraded and kicked out of the army, he made good use of the drastic changes that took place in Bulgaria a few months later. As a civilian, he achieved more than he had wearing his epaulettes. At the beginning of his rise, he saw with his own eyes falling chunks of concrete from the Berlin Wall. This reminded him of that youth who had broken under the stress of meaningless work. He felt a surge of pity for him. He poured half a glass of Schnapps on the floor of the Gaststätte for the peace of his soul. Then he passed by the Catholic chapel and lit a candle. A complete stranger to the soldier, he could not know that at the same time on the same day, on the same occasion, another flame flickered in an Orthodox church in Bulgaria.


* * *

The trench, completed by another task force, ended up serving no purpose. Heavy snows covered it, spring showers reduced it to a narrow ditch. It grew over with saplings, shrubs and forest grasses, forgotten and unmemorable. The only creatures who knew about it were the wild beasts and the human smugglers who at one point helped illegal workers get into Greece.

Yet it held no use for them, could serve neither as a landmark nor as a hiding place, therefore people seldom thought of it.


* * *

Many of those whom I left back in the past mourn over me. Even people who never actually knew me. Especially the witnesses of my execution. And others (thank the sun, they never saw the ugliness with their eyes!), very, very close to me. They are the ones I hurt for. I comfort myself that some day I’ll whisper the truth to them. Yes, I will. I owe it to them.

Especially to Her...

I’m somewhat ashamed. Perhaps She’s guessed that I was not mad with fatigue, I had another reason to rush at the bullets. No-one’s to blame. And I have learned what dying means … death is a nasty thing. If humans die like I did – then they’re right to be afraid. No, I will not forget it, but I do not enjoy recalling it either.

Whenever I recall it, the old nightmare makes me quiver, and then I feel an urge to smile disgustedly, and finally, a cue to myself that that day in the fall of 1989 no longer means anything to me, I shrug.

A human habit.


▶ Nine years later:

It was two a.m. The city had fallen silent, largely due to the abrupt weather change that had followed the downpour. The sweltering heat had ended, and what replaced it was not a refreshing Indian summer but a cold spell – an intimation of the fall that pressed to enter into its rights, and then the winter. The meteorologists had forecast a significant drop in temperatures during the following days. For several years in a row, August offered such surprises to Sofia. The capital sneezed and coughed, cursed the flu, the cold and, paradoxically, the government.

During the first night when a cold wind, a vanguard scout of winter, began to sweep the streets, the police were enjoying a lull in those types of events that interested them professionally. Patrol cars took their quiet naps on intersections, the officers inside idly followed the occasional taxi and counted their forthcoming paychecks.

The idyll of a pair of them loafing on Bulgaria Boulevard was shattered by the whiz of a Grand Cherokee jeep. The luxury vehicle came from the Ivan Vazov district, its lights blazing. It zigzagged, carelessly meandering over the lanes, its tires whining as the driver floored it. Then it would choke and start crawling like a turtle, nick the crash barrier, go into reverse, and generally perform all sorts of odd pirouettes.

The officers swapped glances. Both felt a surge of interest in the blood alcohol content of the road aerobatics aficionado. After a few brief exclamations, the police Lada beeped threateningly with its siren, turned on the beacon and roared in place so as to block the convoluted trajectory of the offender. The vehicle made no attempt to escape. It propped its side against the pillar of the bridge leading to the National Palace of Culture and obediently waited for the cops.

Still tense – who knew what sort of cretin sat inside – they got off and approached the jeep.

The driver’s door was open, and they saw that the driver was snoring, his face on the wheel.

The cops shook their heads when a whiff of wind wafted the odor from inside. The man in the Cherokee was likely not just drunk; he must have shattered a whole cask of rakia on the back seat. Or he was driving grape pomace.

One officer knocked on the window with his baton. The driver slowly turned his face to them, never ungluing his head from the wheel. The tape recorder sang a soft song by Panayot Panayotov. The driver’s eyes swam with a pub-crawl glint. The man babbled something, and the cop wrinkled his nose. “Wow, sir,” he said and beckoned to his colleague to come and relish the sight.

The second officer wrote down the number of the car and peered into the jeep from the other side, He inhaled and choked. “Kha! Guess we’ll have to measure through the nose here! Where’re you headed, pal?”

The man grinned, tried to face him, yet his cheek had settled rather cozily against the wheel, so he barely budged. He was a young man, blondish, well-dressed … and look how wasted he was, goodness. Could he be also stoned?

A flashlight flared at his eyes. After a certain delay, he blinked and frowned, but it had been enough to see that his pupils responded to light. Well, that was some improvement...

“Your papers, please,” said the first officer, almost fatherlike, with a deceptive gentleness.

The driver made a complex uncoordinated motion and babbled out, “De glox...”

The other officer opened the door and pulled the documents out of the glovebox, muttering, “Your license shouldn’t be revoked, it should be wrecked...”

The drunkard hiccuped and asked in a surprisingly distinct voice for all its slur, “Whaaaa naaa? Wha do we do?”

“Well, take three guesses, sir!” The officer placed his arms akimbo. His colleague struggled to read the name on the license in the light of the boulevard lamps.

“Vvvvverry bad, is’t?”

“Bad indeed. You’re in a pretty ugly fix, sir.”

“Yasen Zhivkov Georgiev,” the second officer finally managed.

The identified vile violator of the Traffic Ordinance hiccuped again, gargled something unintelligible yet obviously guilty.

“Yeah,” the officer said sadly, furiously calculating the benefits of apprehending this Georgiev fellow. “Very bad. A real fix. Your license up on blocks. A ticket. Trouble. My, my. It’s pretty somber.”

The Cherokee driver toiled to push his face off the wheel and listlessly sprawled against the seat. He bellowed. And then, quite articulately, asked the next question, the one the cops were waiting for. “So … can’t we jus’ fix it, guys, eh?”

The officers shot glances at each other.

“Dunno, dunno,” the first one said, all hypocritical hesitation. “It’s quite a grave offense. Dangerous driving. Under the influence. Dunno.”

“Aaaah … surely there mus’ be a way?” demanded the offender.

The officer decided this was no time to dally. It couldn’t get any clearer. “Well, give us twenty K each, and you can go, safe and sound. Just grab a taxi, ok!”

Georgiev somehow managed to steady his heavy head on his long unstable neck and stared at the officer ironically. “Fift’n? Apiece?”

Twenty. Deutsche Marks.”

“If you haven’t got it,” added the second officer, “that’s too bad.”

“ ‘wenty? Okay... Hmmm.”

The Cherokee driver grinned wryly and fumbled inside the inner pocket of his jacket. The officer, ostensibly indifferent, let his eyes roam around.

When he returned them to the offender, rather than bills, the now-steady hand held an official ID.

The cops felt sweat break out under their armpits.

Drunken cadences in his voice, Georgiev spoke, brandishing the card of the National Investigation Service before the officers’ stretched faces. “My, my, guys. We ac-cept bribes, heh? Tsk, tsk, tsk. You’re in a very ugly fix, very. Corrupsis … corruption, yep. C’mon now, let’s write a report...”

He crawled out of the car and spread various papers onto its hood, pressing them with his weight against the impish wind.

Like a conductor, he waved a thin pen and blubbered out triumphantly and acidly, “Gimme your names, ranks, number of your district station, et cetera, et cetera.”

The cops regarded him sourly. The first officer stepped closer to Georgiev, who was fluttering in the wind like a banner, and respectfully steadied his thin body. His fingers felt the holster of an official firearm under the jacket.

“Err… Well then, colleague... can’t we just fix it?” he stammered hopefully.

Geogriev grinned ear to ear. “Dunno, dunno...”


* * *

All of a sudden, they were there. Nothing foretold their appearance in the cool night – neither a gust of wind nor a premonition. An instant earlier, they had not been there, and now they were, amidst a non-light implosion. A three-dimensional infrasonic shock wave shot forth from the point of their materialization. An instantaneous vibration shattered the venerable fir into splinters and strewed the ground with the bodies of birds and forest animals that had been caught near the tree. Long seconds later, the silent thunder upset the sleep of people in the villages around. It was not what woke them up though – it was its reverberations that had the dogs barking, house-guards and street mongrels choking in a wild terrified whine. The tumult brought out more than one man in his underpants, fuming and swinging a stick.

Screams and swearing here, a sleepy kind word there, and the night hush stepped back down the mountain skirts, soothed roads, fields and woods, stood guard before fences and gates. Lights were turned off inside houses, dreams like spectral butterflies perched atop warm pillows and quilts. Only mice scratched inside larders, and countless clocks ticked tirelessly inside each sleeping house.

At the epicenter of the brief ruckus, the wind was silent too, no longer playing with his eternal cloud toys. The fog that had suddenly risen among the trees absorbed all noise. It drifted forward, its wisps coiling around the trunks, dampening their bark, seeping across bushes and sapling twigs, bathing boughs and leaves in beads of dew.

In the middle of the fog, vapor condensed heavily. It turned the spot of earth stripped bare by the implosion into a flat circle of mud. Two naked creatures wriggled at its center. Their soft moans gradually faded down and away. The steam that had gushed forth at their appearance now dispersed. Stars sparkled, and the Draco peeked over the Great Bear as it lay coiled around Alruccabah.

The newcomers lay still.

Eventually, an hour or two later, the shock of their entry into this world passed. The lifeless figures shivered, shifted about. The filmy ice coating them softly cracked, their skin gleamed, wrapping itself in the silver halo of evaporation. They helped each other to their feet.

One was tall, fair-haired, and speckled all over – smudges of mud, or perhaps rampant freckles. Strong muscles quavered over jutting bones, making his frame seem rather thin. When he looked around, his eyes glinted yellow and then started burning with an amber fire. They held no white; their topaz irises filled them to the brim.

He sniffed at the air.

#This is my first time in the Human World,# he said to his companion, soundlessly, #and I wonder how you have managed to survive#

The other one was a slightly smaller, perfectly ordinary, sinewy, well-built man of about 30. There were, however, sparks beneath his eyelids too, but they were deep orange, like the ember of a cigarette inside city smog.

#Somehow. This is a Home of mine,# he emitted at the taller one.

#Stifling. Although here, in the middle of these woods, it is almost beautiful#

The two completed their survey, never once blinking. They were not afraid of other eyes – no-one had seen them, no-one saw them, and no-one would, until they wished so. Their gazes lingered on the split tree and the dead animals.

#We have caused death,# they said almost simultaneously, no sound escaping their lips. Their faces remained passive as they shifted their eyes from one tiny body to the next. An all but palpable grief hung over them like a heavy fog. If there had been any sentient witnesses around, they would have been caught inside it, and not easily released.

But there were none.

The arrivals broke off gazing at their chance victims and turned their attention to themselves. The small one raised his hands, twitched his fingers, touched his face, tousled and smoothed back the dark hair hiding his ears. He took hold of his fontanelle as if he were measuring it. He checked his nape, neck, what he could reach of his back with its bulging vertebrae; he probed his clavicles, chest, abdomen; he rubbed at his thighs, bent over his loins, examined his legs one by one. The caked mud was peeling off and powdering his feet like sea sand. He was not looking for injuries; he knew there were none, except for his untypically low tonus. He stretched, squatted, did a few push-ups. He tested his body as if he were trying the sturdiness and comfortability of an old piece of clothing taken from the bottom of one’s wardrobe. He was neither happy nor sad with the results; he found them familiar, and that was all.

His taller companion went through a similar inspection, but his was more careful, more curious, with a restrained sense of wonder. Methodically, he explored himself like a strange object, a mechanism he had so far only had a vague notion of.

Their body check over, the short one waited for his fellow to complete the set of physical exercises he used to evaluate the mobility of his joints.

They looked at each other. The tall blond, expectantly, the short brunet, critically. “I’ll need to get you a pair of sunglasses,” he spoke.

The tall one moved his jaws in response but said nothing.

We’re situated at the foot of a mountain called Vitosha. What I sensed in this direction,” he pointed, “is the wagon of some lumberjacks. We’re going to get clothes there. A dozen kilometers down lies the human city called Sofia.”

The tall one glanced at where the presence of the city wafted from. He swiftly converted the distance into the units he was used to and stored inside his memory the numerical value of “kilometers.” Then he analyzed the distant aura of the enormous agglomeration of humans and the beings that accompanied them – all of them among the disconcerting cramp of many buildings. He conjectured their visual images, comparing them to the field they generated.

A waver in the emotional smell of his companion made him redirect his senses. #I can see your scars now,# he signaled silently after a while.

#I’d forgotten about … most of them. This is the world of my childhood, Alvand#

#You have suffered a lot here, brother#

#But I’ve also felt a lot of joy, friend. Did you sense something … strange?#

The tall one spread more mental threads toward the city. He concentrated. He started and snarled, but once again chose to share his opinion without opening his mouth. #In the Wise City, there used to be … something. Vanishing traces. It is too weak. The only thing that makes it stand apart is that it is different from the background. But I am not sure what it is. The smell of all the Death we caused also interferes. I am sorry for them#

#So am I,# the smaller man echoed and added aloud, “Try to identify the track. My sense is far weaker than yours, remember? I thought it had been a mage … a very powerful one, too.”

The blond tensed, all attention now. #Yes. You are right. Your hint helped me. I can smell the residues of spells. It seems that he is gone. I hope he was not a foe. How do you feel?#

#Hungry. We’re in for a local month’s stay here until we’ve recovered enough to return#

#Not if we find a regular Road … it is possible that not all of them have been razed#

#Nonsense. If there’s one still open, it won’t be one of OURS. Besides, it’s easier to sense an Opening here, considering the low energy background#

#It is higher than I expected#

#A residual emanation from ancient times. There’re other regions like that around this planet#

#I sense them. Look – it is the Moon...#

#The Moon,# the other echoed in their thoughtspeak.

They stared at the waxing moon across the cloud rift. Before hiding again, it flashed at their eyes, wet with its pearly light.

#We were fortunate enough to get a time of growing life force#

#We wouldn’t have negotiated the Rift otherwise#

#Or if they had not summoned you,# the tall one said warily.

His fellow gritted his teeth.

#The Moon,# the blond said.

The short man barely nodded, acknowledging the apology. Then he motioned for them to go. They started toward the wagon, exchanging no mental or auditory words. The dry sticks hardly crackled under their feet, as if the arrivals weighed nothing. The air itself did not move. A squirrel scuttled by, another tiny animal rustled in the litter. A bird fluttered its wings. Vapor came off the bodies of the two men. The tall one curiously examined the loader that stood still among the trees and when he realized what it was, he snorted scornfully.

The wagon, some two hundred steps away from the point of their arrival, welcomed them with an unhinged door and shattered windows – witnesses to the shock wave.

The pair entered it. The brunet discovered a kerosene lamp, and it hissed under his nimble, excited fingers. The tall man watched him.

His fellow directed him to a low cupboard containing duck overalls and rubber boots gnarled with a crust of dry mud and zift. Then he came upon a pile of newspapers and hungrily rustled through them. While the tall man clumsily dressed himself, his companion made unintelligible clucks and gave short exclamations.

#Did I do well?#

The short man glanced at him. “The jacket buttons at the front. Also, get used to talking aloud. Some people in this country are sensitive to telepathy. The old emanation has worked on them for many generations.”

“... Any better now?”

“It’s not straight. And it’s the wrong side out. Let me show you...” He set out to help him.

At last, the tall man nodded and urged, “Get dressed yourself. What did you learn from these sheets?”

“That we’re in the last days of September 1998.”

“Does that mean something?”

“It may.”

“I find it hard to understand you in the Deceptive Language, brother.”

“Almost nine years have passed since I left this place.”

“Is this all you found out?”

“I don’t know. I’ve got to think. Let’s go. And from now on, call me Ivan. In the village down below, we’ll find milk-giving animals and nicer clothes. We’ll need money. Hmm... I’ll take care of that in Sofia. Come on.”

The short man gave a final look around the wagon for something useful. They started along a forest dirt road, soon turning down a steep path. Their boots barely touched the ground. They slid across the shrubs like a gale, unimpeded by darkness; the veinlike swollen roots, the jutting stones and rough patches along the path did not trip them; the abrupt turns did not slow down their wild run. They sprinted for more than half an hour. Their eyes shone like holes in a pumpkin lantern. They came to a rest only when they approached the village. Ivan, no sign of panting, told his companion, “While we’re healing, I’ll settle my personal affairs here. I need no help,” he added after a pause.

“Are you going to leave me alone?”

“From time to time. Stop pouting, you’ll go to the movies, or, best of all, to a concert.” Ivan’s fading eyes groped about the fences and houses beyond the lush gardens. Darkness made the colors indistinguishable. He turned his ears at a low mooing. “A cow!” he grinned and gripped his fellow by the shoulder. “Now let’s go and do some requisitioning...”


* * *

The woman was undoubtedly young, but her apparent age changed all the time in unison with her expression, covering the whole range from twenty to thirty years. She sat in a cafe with large windows, along with a group of friends, or perhaps just colleagues. In front of her, there was a china cup and a plastic bottle of mineral water. Her company was chattering, and she threw in the occasional witticism and smoked. Her cigarette barely rested in the ashtray. The ad-covered glass looked out on passers-by struggling to make up their minds whether they should keep on their overcoats or carry them over their arms. The sun and the wind scouring the streets of the capital teased the people, confused them – was it fall already, or did Indian summer still reign supreme, go figure... A stream of cars roared past.

The radio filled the premises with the latest Bulgarian rock hit, scandalous and tasteless enough to hold the attention of the audience for a long time yet.

A back in a black jacket hid the Coca Cola sticker and froze before the window.

The woman was just cracking another joke when she quivered in mid-word, seemed to listen to something, fell silent and pressed her fingers against her temple. Her friends took no notice and kept chattering. She – it was almost certain now that she was barely twenty-five – slowly, with an effort, battling with her incredulity, turned around.

Across the glass, between the advertising stickers, the owner of the black jacket gazed at her. Intensely. Unblinkingly. In the corner of his deep-set eyes, a smile huddled. A sort of joy. A sort of...

hello it’s me

hello … hello … oh God HELLO,

she replied, her gaze just as intense and unblinking. Only her irises were different: blue, like a piece of May sky underneath her lashes. His eyes were like dark fir bark.

Finally, smiles curved up their lips. She, amusingly and incredibly sweetly, arched her right eyebrow. Her hair was pulled in a ponytail high at the back of her head and could be called dark blond but not auburn. The man pointed at a nearby cafe and beckoned with his fingers as if inviting her … or maybe wishing to caress her.

The young woman turned back to her friends.

Now she was dreamy, faraway. Her lips grew even more lovely with the mysterious seal of the joy no-one else had felt. The girls at her table went on chirruping and babbling about things that had never meant too much to her, and now turned into empty sounds, vocal accompaniment to the music from the radio. They asked about something, she fluidly gestured away: I don’t know, I have no opinion. She had lost any interest in her company.

The song finished and another started, but the young woman did not notice.

She realized she should have been shocked or at least astonished. The thought crossed her mind as if it concerned somebody else.

After a few minutes, she said, “See you,” and went out, flinging a small bag across her shoulder.

The cafe that she slipped into some fifty strides later had smaller windows.


* * *

“Yes, certainly, sir, we’ll do our best...” Severin had another go at his cue to wrap up this appointment.

And his client cut him off again. “Please understand. I don’t want to look like some tyrant. I’ve told you, my attitude is liberal enough. I’ve never stopped her from enjoying herself. I’m worried though. About her safety. Her feeling good is what matters most to me. But I want to be sure she hasn’t gotten herself into a nasty business, you know, she’s young, she could easily stumble into … err … something that could harm her...”

“I warrant that we are going to provide you with all the relevant documentation at our earliest convenience,” Severin tried assuming the tone of a bureaucrat with atrophied emotions. His act was not entirely convincing – he was rapping his fingers on the half-open door, and he was barely restraining himself from pushing out the visitor, who kept failing to leave.

“Money is no object!” the client assured him.

Right, Severin told himself, I’ve heard the magic words already … and more than once.

The man could not contain his tongue. “Fair enough, my circumstances aren’t at their best, I’m actually floundering in some respects, but her happiness is dearer to me...” He paused abruptly as if he had finally realized he’d been repeating himself. Alas, he did not find the strength to say goodbye. His own verbosity irked him, and he was trying to glaze over the situation by muttering phrases that had nothing to say. He realized he had to go and leave the experts deal with the job, but he had fallen into a loop.

Severin was brimming with annoyance. “Have a nice day, Mr Tonev!” he said emphatically, and his fingers drummed hard on the lock.

Surprisingly, this time the implication achieved the desired result. The client mumbled out a goodbye sounding almost like a thank-you, and Severin, a plastic smile on his face, closed the door and leaned back against it. He listened to the man’s footsteps and grunts mixing with the rumble of the elevator. A creak, a thud, the cabin rumbled down.

Yaaay, thank the Almighty One!

The sleuth unpeeled his broad shoulders from the door and shuffled along the corridor toward the kitchen. He was thirsty. There should have been some fruit juice in the fridge.

Yep, it was here, but the box was almost empty.

“Want some juice?” Severin called out to the other room.

“Yes,” replied a not entirely enthusiastic female voice.

“Wanna go down to the store and buy some?”

“No,” the woman said, just as evenly.

The ruse did not work. Severin raised a glass against the window to see how clean it was. “Then all of it is just for me!” he announced.

“Suit yourself.”

“Heh?”

“Enjoy!”

He squeezed the last drop out of the box. He sipped, staring at the terrace. Outside, it was windy and, although it was barely noon, dusky. He distinctly remembered the weather forecasters on Horizon Radio claiming the night before, and then again this morning, that the day would be “warm for the season”, with variable cloudiness. Tough luck. They had guessed wrong again. He would have to smoke in the other room.

The office occupied a bachelor apartment on the seventh floor, looking out on a joyless vista: monotonous panel blocks of flats – like beehives manufactured in a mold. The “variable” clouds completely hid the only nice feature – the humpbacks of Stara Planina. Vitosha, regretfully, was on the other side of the building. The Lyulin Residential Complex. The only one where rental fees were manageable for Orfey-SV Detective Bureau.

Severin took an ashtray, paused to think, and dumped it into the empty box. He went back into the room.

Veneta, his business partner, alias secretary, was playing solitaire on the computer. Her table stood at a right angle to the desk of the company CEO, alias Severin. Both tops were immaculately tidy – especially the one with the computer, as the CEO desk was practically empty, exhibiting three objects only: an austerely bound notepad, a stylish drafting lamp, and an excessively expensive electronic clock, mounted on a black plastic mat, which impressed everyone. Right now, the black square signs inside its transparent cube read:

12:48 p.m., 14 October 1998 – WED

That nuisance of a visitor, Severin recalled, had paid no attention to the glass attraction which took a very careful scrutiny to make out the fibers of the conductors to the liquid crystals forming the elements of numbers and letters. And that had been rather indicative.

The detective bureau CEO liked his clock not just because it showed the time of day and date. It almost always elicited a response from his clients. “Does it run on batteries? Where are they hidden?” were their usual questions, revealing everyone’s particular character. Even when they said nothing, visitors VERY openly looked at it, stared, goggled. It was the same scheme: you could tell right away what sort of bird had perched on your branch, how grave their predicament was, how thick, their wallet.

The bird that had just flown away must have been in quite a jam.

To one side of the work stations stood a comfortable armchair for the visitors, and slightly closer to the wall, a sofa, in case the clients were more than one.

Severin lounged into the armchair. He stretched his legs.

It was not only his clock that he liked, with all its bells and whistles, like displaying the temperature or reminding him about appointments, conjuring up the memos inside its crystal bowels. Severin liked the whole office, mostly because he had repaired it on his own. He still felt proud of that.

The walls were the color of a faded melon, the furniture had a reddish upholstery and a deep-brown mordant. Behind Veneta’s back, there rose a well – and fittingly! – painted metal store rack, holding a host of fat folders and videotapes inside unlabeled but painstakingly numbered boxes. Almost all the folders were empty, and the videotapes contained action flicks and MTV clips, so their function was decorative. The Sony TV set and the video-recorder modestly occupied the corner, the screen reflecting the white window blinds. Another ornament adorned the wall above Severin’s seat: a gorgeous 1998 calendar, an advertising item of Arsenal Magazine – and quite fitting for a detective agency. Well, one could call his associate an ornament too, but when Veneta dressed officially, her looks inspired primarily respect and no-one noticed she was young.

Of course, not everything served as eyewash. For instance, the bathroom housed a photo laboratory – completely genuine, as it was not meant to be gawked at by the visitors. It also housed a strong box holding scant but tried-and-true tools for the needs of the trade, including an electric shock baton and a pistol.

“You’re peacocking,” Veneta informed her boss, alias partner, seemingly in passing.

The CEO broke from his delighted contemplation of the interior and demonstrated his fluency in English, “Partner, can I smocking? Do you mind?”

“Smoke,” she replied indifferently, “you need it. Now, if ymou meant your smoking jacket, it’s being dry-cleaned.”

Severin acknowledged the joke with the smile of a kind Oriental despot. As he lit up a cigarette, he gave an appraising look at the calendar. “I hope I’ll filch a more aggressive poster next year,” he said across billows of smoke, nodding at the wall.

Veneta arched her eyebrows. “More aggressive?”

Her partner gestured energetically, scattering the smoke. “Something with cleavers, daggers, knives. More rods. Or that one from the Net, the one with the commandos...”

“Get a calendar with a naked chick. Wearing only a belt and a holster with a BIG revolver under her navel. And a sheriff’s badge on her tit.”

“Are you going to pose for it?”

“Sure. With or without my spectacles? And more importantly, for how much?”

Severin considered the idea. “Nah. The calendar is supposed to chase the idiots away, not have their eyes glued. Rather than you, I’ll put, ermmm...”

“Alice Cooper?”

“Sashka Vaseva. Or Ceca Velickovic.”

“A lot of our clients actually dig them. If you wanna make it sinister though, put Ceca Velickovic’s li’l man.”

“That’s a bad idea. Someone will leave behind a hand grenade. It should be something unrelated to personal affinities, politically neutral. Al Pacino, err, Nicolas Cage...”

“Bruce Willis.”

“No way!”

Severin pulled his notepad nearer. He used it during his conversations with clients. He usually held it on his knees – so it showed over the edge of the desk, without revealing what he wrote inside. Flowers and doodles sprouted on its pages while the detective nodded sagely, counting on Veneta to systematize electronically the soliloquys of whatever embarrassed client sat opposite him.

The appointment with the Ognyan Tonev fellow had enriched the notepad with wise wavy lines and a whole meadow of daises.

The detective bureau CEO did not like daisies.

Taking on the new case began some two hours and a half ago, in the morning of a fall day the meteorologists had promised to be wonderful, of a year that was still full of optimism. A man arrived, youthful-looking, fortyish, and explained how he would like to engage Orfey-SV Ltd. For the appropriate fee – expenses plus a premium for the service.

“He’d plainly rehearsed his cues in advance,” said Veneta.

Severin was used to his partner’s gift to guess his thoughts with an uncanny accuracy. “Yeah, that’s what I thought as well. But then he lost his self-confidence and started mumbling. I wasted a week’s store of probing questions to trick him into spitting it out. Why did you wink at me to take this on?”

“I did?”

“Well, once it became clear what it was all about, you gave me such a look, you know...”

“And you decided it was a wink?”

Summoning all his dignity as CEO of Orfey-SV, Severin stayed calm. “Was I mistaken?”

Veneta suddenly got absorbed in the papers on her desk, her face a blank.

The bureau owner forgot about his cigarette. “Veneta!”

“Yes!” she responded brightly.

“I hope you’re not going to tell me I stumbled into this stupid assignment without— Aha. More jokes.” He relaxed, crossing his fingers like he’d seen Robert Redford do in a legal thriller, and frowned at the ash that had fallen on the wax-yellow parquet. He hated bare floors, yet a carpet or moquette would make the visitors feel way too cozy. “What are you going to tell me NOW?”

Veneta held up a thin pen. “Didn’t you yourself say that you don’t want us to get involved in such ticklish cases? ‘It’s just that our company refrains from interfering in familial situations...’”

“That’s not familial!” Severin cut her off, recalling his surprise when the client had blushed. “This is about my … girlfriend,” Tonev had said. “We cohab... live … together, you know, but it hasn’t been officially settled due to … because I haven’t dissolved my previous marriage yet...”

“This changes things but only makes us more determined,” Severin had replied carefully. How unpleasant it was to say no. Sometimes people took it very hard. As if they were paying not for a private investigation, but for the investigator himself, part and parcel with his conscience.

He sighed at Veneta. “Okay, you filled me in on the bad news. I want the good news now.”

“I suppose you don’t trust his babbling about any criminal acts involved.”

“He’d have turned to the police. Obviously, we’d have to ferret for...”

“Adultery.”

“...for … infidelity.”

“Then why did he start when you suggested he should go to the local police station?”

“Well, that’s an ordinary response. People still get cold feet from the cops. A socialist legacy. Besides, how did he phrase it? His theory was … it was very … it’s very ...”

“Theoretical,” Veneta threw in.

“Yes, that’s the word you suggested to him. And he clutched at it like at a straw. It’s not nice mocking our clients like that.” Severin arched his brows in discontent.

Veneta shrugged inside her jacket.

“What facts have we got when all’s been said and done?” Severin demanded.

“There weren’t many facts. There were ‘certain considerations’ and plenty of confused repetition. Still, I managed to squeeze out half a page of useful info. Including the personal data of our most respected client as well as those of his subject who is to be monitored. You failed to shut his trap for twenty minutes.”

“Twenty-two,” the CEO deflected the rebuke, all dignity. “And?”

“And. Everything’s too muddy, it may come down to nothing, however...”

Severin waited patiently, gazing sadly at his empty glass.

“The situation appears to be precisely as we thought in the beginning – the seemingly banal affair of a middle-class upstart, who lives with his lover rather than his wife. And doubts if he’s her only man. Now...” Veneta rapped on the keyboard. The screen was reflected in her concentrated thin-framed spectacles. “I’ve jotted down his fantasies about certain patterns and conspiracies around the girl. The gent never gave us a clue what his girlfriend might be blackmailed for.”

“A plain bluff,” Severin threw in sourly, “to give himself airs.”

It was a familiar case. Pretty dumb, too. Pictures in bed through a powerful lens, bug microphone recordings of intimate chats in pastry shops, hotels, and private accommodations, those with the one-night rents, or from the flats of the parties to the unpleasant squabble. Then, black eyes, screams, claims and dragged-out divorce suits. Enough to make a man sick. The payment too – it was pure misery. He should have said no straightaway.

Yet, something seemed to itch inside his nose from the very beginning. He sniffed that things might turn out rather different if he looked close enough. Perhaps quite complicated. He hesitated. “Was it worth it? It’s not like our schedule teems with assignments anyway. I just don’t like the fellow,” he said.

“Definitely. He was definitely unpleasant – and it’s definitely worth it.”

The young woman turned on the radio hidden under her desk. She adjusted the station and the volume.

Severin smiled inside. His partner needed music in order to think. He preferred silence, but that didn’t bother him too much. He had always enjoyed Veneta’s analyses. They were more fascinating than Mickey Spillane’s novels, and he was even willing to concede they were on par with Georges Simenon.

The detective slapped the notepad onto his desk, ready to listen. “Why did YOU find him disagreeable?”

“That’s not relevant to what I’m going to say.” Veneta turned in her chair, placed her elbow on the rest and looked at him over her glasses. “Severin, the client was not being frank.”

After a brief pause, the detective silently agreed. Veneta went on, “His postures betrayed him. When he calmed down and stopped feeling embarrassed – by me – even then he was tense.”

Her partner settled himself on the sofa and folded his arms across his chest. He gave her a benevolent nod. “Go on.”

“I have your leave? He was shifting around all the time, like there were pins on the armchair seat. He displayed all the signs of anxiety. Asshole.”

“Wait, why so rude right away? He’s concerned, it’s understandable...”

“Oh yeah. About himself. The selfish thing. Did you notice he was disparaging her, spoke condescendingly, with an air of superiority?”

“...and I think he was sitting calmly.”

“Well yeah, he got stiff whenever he became aware of that.”

“And the ‘selfish thing’ part, you’re exaggerating about it,” Severin said placatingly.

Veneta waved this away and went on, “There are two things I found curious. Firstly, he didn’t enjoy talking about her pastimes. He doesn’t like her reading books and discussing topics that don’t concern him, I’d even say, scare him. He mentioned that she dabbled in poetry, but he said it nervously.”

“Hmm. I didn’t notice that.”

“Well, that’s what I’m here for.”

“Right... What would I do without you, partner? Few men have that sharp head of yours.”

“Well, I don’t know.” Veneta smiled at last. “Shall I use your words to ask for a promotion?”

“Oh, come on! You take a friend’s compliment and make—”

“If I take this as a compliment, I’ll say a mere thank-you, and I’ll have no further obligations. It rather sounds like the recurrence of an insult though. And that’s gonna cost you ten per cent more for my secretary work.”

“...A truly sharp head— Ten per cent?

“And five more days of full-pay leave. With a holiday pass for Albena. And ski lessons in Pamporovo.”

“A piece of bread and a yacht, I see. Now please excuse me, Miss, I have a question.”

“Speak up, Georgiev. Get up from your desk, sonny, as all good children do, take your time and speak legibly.”

“What made you think the case is worth it? How can you be so sure it’s not another piece of junk?... Wha?”

Veneta shrugged coquettishly. “Intuition,” she sang out.

“Intuition? Right, that explains everything... Do you mind spelling it out for the likes of me?”

“You shouldn’t expect any meaningful proofs. At a certain point, Mr Ognyan Tonev mentioned the word ‘possession’. I’m sure he didn’t mean it sexually. Did you really miss it? Then he repeated himself, with a slight difference – he blurted out ‘obsession’.”

“No. I missed that. It could have been a slip of the tongue... What, why are you looking at me like this?”

“I’m calculating if I should ask for fifteen per cent. Okay. Second. In his speech about the odd things concerning her...”

“Except for the fact that you can bet he hasn’t slept with her for a while, he wasn’t worried about anything. And hence, his suspicions.”

“Fear.”

“Hmm. Could it be she got involved with a sect? No wonder then he’s afraid.”

“Not for her. He’s afraid of her.”

“You sure?”

“His shoulders kept going up as if he was trying to hide his head.”

“Ha!”

“Whenever he started talking on the main subject of his coming here, Tonev adopted an aggressive posture, stretched out his elbows. He really hasn’t slept with her for a while, as you guessed, and he’s angry about it. Yet at each mention of Iskra’s name, his shoulders betrayed him. He doesn’t understand her. She scares him. He’s addicted to her, emotionally, although he wouldn’t admit it. He can’t stand the idea that he might lose her, but not lose her in general – the pain of separation and so on. He’s afraid that his girl may run away with someone else.”

“Well,” Severin’s smile invited a more jocular mood, “it’s a male reaction.”

Veneta did not bite the bait. “Of course,” she said coolly. “Haven’t I told you men are slave-owners by nature?”

Severing coughed. She went on, “And when Tonev spoke about what he himself called … magic, he looked particularly angry. His fists went white with clenching.”

The detective felt a surge of anxiety. The sensation passed away like the memory of a misgiving whose cause has been forgotten.

“Magic,” Severin repeated dully, and five second later exploded. “Hell, why didn’t this guy go to a soothsayer? Hmm. Alright...” He rested his chin on his fingers and scratched his nose. “And what can you tell me about the grounds of his fears? Do you mean that he’s got a psychological problem? Perhaps unconscious homosexual... Doesn’t that imply phobia of women in general? I know, you’re gonna tell me I don’t give up easily, but that’s the more logical and elementary explanation. While you’re concentrating on … hmm, mysticism. That’s what I’m asking you. Why?”

“Why are you acting the psychoanalyst?”

“Okay, where did the magic gobbledygook come from?”

Veneta took off her spectacles, carefully and slowly, like an aristocrat. She scrutinized the cleanness of the glasses. Severin waited.

“That was his most sincere statement for the whole talk,” she said at last.

Her partner gawked in mock astonishment. In fact, he was truly surprised. “The most sincere?”

“If not the single sincere.”

“Hey, you don’t believe in star signs, you pout when I read articles on UFOs, and now you’re telling me in dead earnest we’ve got to turn into … ghost-busters. Enchanters that drive away devils – what was the word...”

“Exorcists. I wouldn’t be surprised,” she said thoughtfully.

Before Severin could absorb the obvious fact that she was not joking, Veneta elaborated. “What makes me think so is the fact that when he spoke of this … hm, magic, our client stopped watching his gestures. True, on the outside he seemed to become calmer. He went numb. It was genuine terror. To top it all, absolutely unconscious. He’s worried, yet he doesn’t notice he’s already answered to himself what causes his worry.”

“And what causes it? The evil eye, as he himself put it?”

“Yes.”

“But you didn’t use to believe in such stuff...”

“It doesn’t matter if I believe or not. Thing is, the human subconscious believes in miracles. In magic, enchantments. In a world conspiracy. In aliens. This is a pre-consciousness from prehistorical times. Our core is superstitious to the backbone.”

“Aaaah, I see your point.” Severin rose, went round his desk and crouched over a coffee machine hidden from accidental glances. “And I was just about to think it was something objective... Coffee?”

“Yes please... Of course it’s objective. The subconscious is objective. Remember reading to me that magazine article about the hypnotized man who was told his arm was being touched not by a pen but by a heated poker. And the ‘cheated’ fellow got burn marks. Scars, too. Completely objective. Thanks.” Veneta embraced the cup with both hands. “Magic probably works the same way – via the subconscious. Enchantments are like computer viruses inserted into the victim’s brain.”

“Aha.”

“Brain – hardware; consciousness – software. And no poltergeists anywhere. At least I don’t know of God ever having consulted with Microsoft.”

“Aha... But magic on unconscious dead matter, how about that?”

“Don’t get distracted. Perhaps our fellow is just this sort of case. Yet I think he overrates his own importance. Do you remember, in Catch 22, Yossarian is convinced the German flakkers aim personally at him; not at an enemy plane in general, they specifically aim at Mr Yossarian. Yep, that’s our case. A clear one... Oh! Listen to that!” She turned up the radio.

...Only you, I love you, only you...

“Oh, that’s a good one. It’s Kiora, right?”

“It doesn’t matter if it’s good. I don’t like this song. Listen, listen. Note the lyrics.”

Severin obeyed.

...No, no, I don’t wanna believe someone else...

Veneta turned down the radio. “That’s our client!” she said in response to Severin’s shrug. “An X-ray picture of Ognyan Tonev.”

“In what sense?”

“I love you not because it’s you … but because I won’t share you. I’m the only one who can throw you away like a tissue, but I won’t let anyone else steal you. Because you’re my property. He must have her around when he needs her. Not when she needs him.”

Severin was examining his nails.

Veneta kept at it. “The perfect man – he provides money, helps with the house chores … and usually waits for things to resolve themselves. However, this time something threw him off balance. And just how theatrically he said it: ‘I’d do anything for her’...”

“Smart people have been known to say stupid things,” Severin muttered.

Veneta had a keen ear. “Please don’t act as his counsel. If he’d do anything for her, why doesn’t he get a divorce? Why? Well, why should he do it!? If he does, he may lose his parental rights over his child. Didn’t you hear him? Or he’ll have to pay child support. Division of property. Trouble. Worries. Men don’t like these things. That’s why I found him unsavory.”

Severin was drawing circles in his notepad. “You’re taking sides,” he said drily. “That’s unprofessional. Also, she … Iskra, right? It was she who chose that … situation. Pass her pictures to me please.”

“Here you’re. But let me remind you – she works. He does not support her. She doesn’t even owe him getting fixed up with a well-paid job, otherwise he’d have pointed it out. He took his time listing the things he’d done for her... Although you’ve got a point – this is not a question of ethics. It’s none of our business if he’s worried about his property, rather than about her as a person, is it now? We just have to tell him: Yes, Iskra’s got a lover, no, there’s no lover; yes, she’s in for robberies, drugs and assassinations, no, her criminal record is clean. I heard what you undertook to do right, didn’t I? Since I was listening pretty closely...”

The detective patted the photos on his knee. He had not looked at them yet. “Then why is she with him?”

“Well, isn’t that exactly what’s none of our business?”

“And still?”

“Because of many things. The problem of our client, whom you tried to assault with so much Freud, is well-known and common: he doesn’t want to take full responsibility and accept the woman beside him as she is. I’d say he’s looking for an occasion to transfer the blame for this already ruined relation from the sick head to the sound. Otherwise he’d talk with Iskra rather than slink here. He’d ask a psychologist for advice. However, he’d rather raise an alarm that somebody’s stealing his girlfriend. At the very least, he could fob her off with promises of getting that divorce. He could share his plans with her. This forges bonds. She’d feel more certain this way, and she wouldn’t try to flee from him.”

“Flee? Perhaps she doesn’t want to get married, then.”

“Severin, damn it, this champ holds a hugely favorable position. He’s been keeping her ever since she was seventeen...”

“He said there’d been, hmm, a ‘break’ in their relations. And another quarrel after—”

“But two or three years later, they got together again. They separated two times, but in the end they got together. So he’s got habit on his side, and habit is the force that keeps together the majority of couples and marriages. And here, there’s not even a marriage, there aren’t children. And it clearly shows he’s still wearing his wedding ring. Obviously, in the cases when it suits him. When it doesn’t – he takes the ring off. He’s blowing his position. He doesn’t get that she’s faithful, but not to him – she’s faithful to her love of him. Or to the memory of that love... A selfish idiot!”

“You’ve drawn a lot of conclusions about her already.”

“I used both my ears. And I examined the picture. It speaks for itself.”

“Umm... Yes, ultimately women wish for security, don’t they?” Severin raised the photographs at the level of his eyes.

A few seconds later, he said, slightly disappointed, “Hah. She’s nothing special. I thought... She probably looks nicer in person. At least … well, her lips are pretty anyway. Her face is more the Slavic type, no Mongoloid impurities...”

Veneta rose, snatched the picture and stared at it. “The women expert you are, Severin boy. Make that another week to my full-paid leave... Yes, she’s got someone,” she said thoughtfully, nibbling at the thin metal frames of her spectacles.

“So after all it’s humdrum,” Severin drawled out in disappointment.

“It’s not!” she said, her eyes fixed on the girl’s image. “Something’s gonna pop up out of this. And it’s not gonna be a hare...”

“Huh?”

“I was talking to myself. I don’t know.”

“Intuition again?”

“Intuition.”

“Here’s your extra asset besides the male reasoning in your cute head. Now go over all of this again, but stick to plain speak, please.”

Veneta brushed aside her hair and said, apparently to herself, “Let’s analyze... So. Extraordinarily regular features. Look at this picture, anything to say?”

“Oh, she doesn’t look so good here.”

“You can see her arms. Broad hands, but slim fingers. Her wrists are almost delicate, but the veins stand out. These are quick hands, nervous, resolute. Resolute to the point of recklessness.”

“A man’s hands.”

“Quite the contrary – the most female hands I’ve ever seen. They’re often clumsy, but they can do anything. They’re fragile, yet they surely don’t know their strength. She must spend a lot on plates and glasses...”

“And what’s the final analysis?”

Veneta sat down and pressed her temples with her index fingers. She studied the woman’s photograph. “That I can’t tell you. I don’t know. Something that’s going to be interesting. Notice the way she’s looking at the camera. Directly, frankly, bravely. I’m certain she’s cut out for an eventful life. She enjoys attention, she’s sociable... A lot of previous crushes, and all of them serious. Ognyan Tonev, however, is her longest relationship indeed. Not counting the separations, she’s been with him for nearly eleven years.”

“So you believe she’s got someone. In fact … yes. How old did he say she is?”

“She’ll soon turn thirty-one.”

“Hmm, she’s my age? I wouldn’t give her more than twenty-five, even twenty. Could she be a February child, like me?”

“October 23, calm down. She just looks youthful. And, according to the gent, she is ‘emotionally young for her age’,” Veneta added caustically. “What dictionary did he get such a diagnosis from?”

“Aha, tenk you ochen beaucoup. I’d say she’s like those chicks who are ageless, like the Japanese... Probably her other lover would be younger than her … cohabitant.”

“Secret friend, Severin Georgiev! I wonder … why is she so hungry?”

“What? Hungry?”

Veneta made a pause. “Did I say hungry? Hmm. There was something else inside my mind … but I forgot it.”

“Okay.” The detective clapped his hands, businesslike. “So, what are we required to do? To confirm or confute the concerns of our most respected client—”

“He knows,” Veneta said in an oddly detached and muffled voice.

Severin turned all of his attention to her. “Then why did he hire us?”

“He hopes these are just ghosts, figments of his own imagination.” Veneta gave her partner an incredibly grave look. “I guess he’s about to be … sorely disappointed.”



1 (Russian) Never shall you find a ford, in either fire or sea. – translator's note

2 The first line of “Exiles”, a poem by Bulgarian writer Peyo Yavorov. – translator’s note