Two extracts from “The Heights” by Milen Ruskov
published 2012 by Janet 45.
Context: The novel is set in 1872. Revolutionary committees have been set up throughout Bulgarian lands to prepare the people for revolution against their Turkish oppressors. It is a time of passionate self-education – known in history as the Bulgarian Renaissance, Two lads, Gicho and Assen, armed with guns and books, set out from Kotel and Zherevna to join a band of brigand-revolutionaries in the mountains. Their characters reflect a mixture of down to earth ruthlessness and idealism. Their waves of extreme optimism and pessimism speak to an ambivalent contemporary Bulgarian consciousness – resulting from still feeling exiled on the outskirts of Europe.
The first extract is a translation of the first 28 pages. The action in the second extract occurs after our heroes are on the run from the Turkish authorities, following a successful holdup.
The narrative is written in a rich archaic dialect, which I have attempted to convey in my local rural English accent. Suffolk England like Kotel Bulgaria is an area that grew rich from the wool trade.
“Twenny seven Febr’y, aaar! This en’t no life! So proper freezin’ rafty, wood and stone are bustin ’emselves. Tiday I goin’ from Kotel and I’d be on my way if it weren’t ’avin to wait for Assen from Zherevna, my mate. If he en’t turned over ’is cart in the snow? It were down to ’im to get an ’orse, buy it or steal it, howmsoever chance’ll have it, ’cos I can’t get one from ’ome. It’s other things dependin’ on me…..Big big cold! Kotel is right bang in the middle of the mountains, like God made it in his sleep. . Or if it were a feller, what feller alive would hev builded it here, I can’t tell, but it’s likely he weren’t in his wits. That’s to say I know what stoopid old folk tales do tell about how supposedly some old boys from Novachka village lost their ’orses, their ’orses come here to the springs, and these old boys found ’em ’ere and liked the place so much that they scratched their stoopid ’eads and declared: “’Ere’s where we’ll start afresh”, and that’s how these buggers hev founded Kotel. Fuck their old lost mother, ’cos of them I’m stuck in this snowy hell! ’Ere the famous blizzards blow up the whole winter, you can’t pass. If you en’t bin out to sea, you can happily go drown yersel ’ere in some snowdrift. Sometimes the snow heaps up so mighty that in the crevasses up Razboina the wind do blow it over the tops of trees.
I swig like a good ole boy from my flask of rakia. Here it en’t quite proper to drink, ‘cos I’m standin’ by the Galata School, there be kids inside. They watch and learn – everythin’ they see, they want to do. They see you drinkin’, and they want to do the same. It’s simple children’s way o’ thinkin’. After’ards you got to purge ‘em, shout at ‘em, flog ‘em, till they get it out of their heads. I tell myself to turn my back on this school, so no-one see me. Well, well, soon as I turn to the right, I see the motto: “Help me rise to the heights.” This school is new, I en’t studied here, but in the old one what they call The Kotel Academy. I hev studied there up to the third class, and later for a year in the fifth. And Assen, he bin a pupil there, for his own good and the good of the nation. Leastways, this be what they do say. To rise to the pinnacle, to open up your eye-lids, to raise yourself up, boy, to knowledge and virtuous thoughts, to fix yerself as a creature with language and a proper yuman bein’. From all this to the Cause is but one step.
Again I lift my eyes to the motto: “Help me rise to the pinnacle.” That’s it exact. Over the way, t’other side of the cobbles is Vassil Kontorov’s pub, where Levski founded the committee.
And why, you do ask, while you’re waitin’ for Assen to come up from Zherevna, don’t you go to t’other end of Kotel to meet him, ‘stead of sittin’ like some woodland tree stump, right here in Galata? Well it’s easy for you to say so! But heck, I’m loaded down with baggage, I carryin’ weaponry, another set a clothes for the road, provisions, and books to read, when we’re journeyin’ in the mountains. Anyways I live just round the bend, if you look that way, you’ll see our fence, long kind of house, bit like an ‘ospital you might say. That’s because, my father has a workshop there, and the whole house, and the yard even, in summer is full of greatcoats. He drives them after to Burgas to sell ‘em to sappy idiots what wears em. They’re soldiers from the Turkish Army mostly. They cover their skinny bums with ‘em, go fishin’ for fleas, and cough up dosh in gold coin for us to count up. I tell you boy, there en’t nothing more stoopid than the Turkish Army in this whole world. If you en’t seen the Turkish Army, take it from me, that they be there where the lowest tricks be happenin’. Wherever silly buggers be played and you en’t got a clue what to call it, the Turkish army is right there. And that’s a fact.
For just this one reason I’m standin’ exactly here, waitin’ on Assen. True, to get to me, he got to cross all of Kotel, but once you hev passed by the Vida, there’s no way Kotel’s crooked streets’ll lead you astray.
And why, you’ll ask, are you settin’ out, you mother’s-boys, in this big blizzard and piling snow, to roam through drifts like some sort of ghosts, up over your ‘eads in this snowy waste, and where you fuckin’ idiots think you’re goin’. I know your sort. It’s easy for you to say, lookin’ down high and mighty, like some Greek God. So let me ask you, how we goin’ to get to the agreed meetin’ with Dimitur Obshti this comin’ start of March if we don’t set out now. And this business won’t stand putting off. Because this be national business, for the Cause, for the Revolution. Just so you know, month of April, and sometimes the end of March, the Turkish treasury wagons start up over the Balkans, bound for Istanbul. And we with our comrades and the distinguished revolutionary Dimitur Obshti will be awaitin’ ‘em with joy in our hearts in the thick wooded Balkan passes, and Ha! – you come here, I want a word with you! So as to be ready for April, we have to get together by March, to look ourselves over, who’s here, who isn’t, who’s your kin by marriage, to get things in order , so that later – hold fast, you young hearts! But when April comes, then afterwards the whole summer, the Turks drive treasury wagons through the Balkan passes. If you can think of summat more stoopid, I’ll stand you a drink. But come to think, what other route can they take? Sometimes the Turkish commanders in their mean Asiatic spite send out troops to hunt us. But is that the way to catch hold of hardened lads? The Balkans is a proud dank place! In the forest you’ll be led a merry dance, tryin’ to catch the fiddler. The Balkans, time immemorial, have been the very dear hidin’ place for our young hero brigands, to gather together and take ruthless vengeance on the Turkish rulers – killin’ this lot, robbin’ that lot, in short boy, fuckin’ their mothers. But they en’t been on the right road yet, the national feelin’ en’t awoke in their breasts yet, and they’re actin’ just for their personal vengeance, and not for the Cause whatever. Ey that’s just one mistake and now it’ll be mended. The worse for the Turkish governors. We’ll haul your arses over, so to say.
We’ll collect the money from the treasury trains, and give a share for the revolution, but hold somethin’ for our own needs, for our keep and winter quarterin’ and all such-like. This year I’m bringin’ Assen, it’ll be his first time, poor bastard. My father look askance at me: “Stay ‘ere,” says he, “with us, workin’, where you goin’ boy runnin’ off with those buggers,” he fumes. But I’m not goin’ to heave around great-coats, workin’ for the Turks – no fear! I’ve declared for the Cause and for the Revolution!
And that’s why, we set out for Dimitur, and we’ll meet up with him in a secret monastery place, which I cannot name, ‘cos it’s the strictest secret. And then finally we’ll get stuck into the Cause.
Ey here’s Assen now, appearin’ at the top of the street. He’s drivin’ a wagon with one horse. He’s wearin’ a thick wool cloak, but instead of a hood, he’s put a fox skin hat on his head with three tails hangin’ down, like a Turkish sergeant, that’s what they wear. Assen is kind of small and with that cloak and fox hat, his face flashes like a mouse in its ‘ole or a squirrel dodgin’ in the leaves. He’s all hunched up, the bugger, from the cold, so he looks even more short-arsed, along with his cloak, he be pretty truly froze up like a homeless dog, comin’ all the way here. But when he see me, he lifts his hand in greetin’ and shouts: “Oy there, Gicho, boy…” He shout summat else but I can’t hear the bugger.
“Come on!” I shout, “Brother, the Cause is startin’!” So I take a swig from the flask and start out with a bold manly stride, as was suitable, to meet Assen. God be with us!
We shake hands me and Assen, and thump each other’s backs, so then I load my baggage into the wagon. It’s all over with snow, which has got inside and coverin’ Assen’s bags, amongst which I only just manage to see a spade for diggin’ out of drifts.
“How were the journey here. Assen?” I ask.
“Oh, leave off boy! The whole road’s covered in drifts, my heart dropped out o’ my arse under Vida, by the Iron Gate snow was up to my waist, gatherin’ in great piles on the bends, the cart were sinkin’ up to the rails, I had to get down to shovel snow and ‘elp the ‘orse. Just as well I took the spade, otherwise I’d not hev got through.”
And as he mentioned this horse, only then do I give it my special attention. Damn it, I don’t like the look of it one bit. It’s just skin and bones. “But heck, where in buggery did you find that scrawny nag?”
“Bought ‘im off the gypsies, boy, but what’s the fuss, the animal’s all right. He’s gettin’ on a bit, but that’s as far as my money’d stretch. And don’t you pay no mind to how thin he look. He’s a mighty horse! Muscles!”
Ey all done and dusted, nothin’ to argue over- a bloke hev to look forrard. So I asked what the ‘orse were called.
“ Look here now, that I didn’t find out,” says Assen. “They were holdin’ a whole herd of horses all fenced in, what they were sellin’ and they call each and every one Kolyo. “Look at this Kolyo, look at that Kolyo” and if it were a mare “Mara”. Only when you take it, do you ask the bloke that takes care of the horse what its name is and he tells you. But I didn’t hang about. It hit me later, that I ‘adn’t found out the name of the horse, but I didn’t want to go back. If you’ve got past the gypsies without bein’ robbed once, don’t try it a second time.
“Well now what are we going to call it?” I said and gave the horse a pretty doubtful stare. And he looked back at me, back quite untroubled, with his big black eyes, and didn’t move, but out of his mouth steam were risin’ in cloud on cloud.
“Well now I think, brother Gicho, as we settin’ out on this kind of errand like ours, we ought to christen ‘im.” Here I pick up that Assen is hesitatin’, either he don’t know what to say or he tryin’ to hold it back. “Let’s christen him Grandaddy Yovan.”
I raise objections, because a scrawny nag like this can’t have such a proud name. And so Assen proposed we call him Frenchie – because that too would be a revolutionary name, tied up with freedom and rebellion. But I reject this out of hand, as completely out of the question, even smackin’ a little of blasphemy, you might go so far as sayin’. So in the end we go back to Granddaddy Yovan.
It comes into my head to christen him Granddaddy Liben, after Liben Karavelov, still clear linked to the Revolution, but this don’t seem any better, and I say to myself: instead of arguin’ with Assen, who’s sometimes as stubborn as a donkey on a bridge, better to let him have his choice. There again, as to Squire Liben, I got my own private opinion. I wouldn’t let that bloke lead me anywhere.
So then I jump up next to Assen on the drivin’ seat, he pulls on the reins and Granddaddy Yovan, so called, slowly turns round on the street and we set out the opposite way to get out of Kotel. I hand the flask to Assen and I say: “Go’n take a swig of this to warm your cockles.”
“Aar, you thought well to bring somethin’ sustainin!” Assen replies, you can see him perked up. “It completely slipped my mind.
“You’re green, that’s why,” says I. “Where you goin’ without rakia in this weather, specially on a journey. Old folks, they do make out that the rakia cools down outside the skin, so you don’t feel the cold, and your heart warms up from inside and your blood starts pumpin’ lively. For sure, that’s what Black Kolyo must have known best, when he took to roamin’ on his tod through the Kotel mountains in November, after that little swine-herd killed Indzhe.
Assen guesses rightly, that a lecture about Indzhe’s standard bearer is on its way.
“The very same” says I. “Black Kolyo, standard bearer. He roamed these mountains through the autumn that year, up and around Razboina, all on his ownsome, had no food, no nothin’, in the woods just yellow leaves, how he survived, even he don’t know. Not to labour the point, but I do say that the rakia saved his life, otherwise he’d hev froze and died.
Assen tut- tutted and said “beyond belief, beyond belief”.
We passed the central square, completely deserted in this ferocious weather, and then drove down the king’s road. The winter frost has smoothed out the Kotel streets with slabs of ice crystal and here and there the horse is slidin’ a little. Everythin’s white from snow, boy, and not a livin’ person to be seen, well just one auntie, a bashin’ on a carpet hangin’ outside. Goes to show that the world en’t easy for women, neither. We went past Krustyo’s house, where in the summer of 1854 that burnin’ patriot Rakovski hid with his relatives. And there everythin’s deader than dead, white out, with folk hidden indoors in the warm, huddled up glowin’ in the fire and scratchin’ their arses. It’s just me and Assen travellin’ in this blizzard. Howmsoever we get out of Kotel easy enough, you should see what we had to drag our sorry arses through then. It’s beyond the tellin’. Granddaddy Yovan, look at the old chap, more dead ‘n alive, hardly kept body and soul together, just one breath away from flyin’ up with the heavenly angels, up to the pinnacle, but the creature do pull strong, strainin’ the sinew. But because the road is all snow, up to the knees, the horse is mighty troubled, so I get down from the cart, in hopes that he’ll manage the road and pull the cart more easy. And as it turns out he manages somehow, but some time Assen gets down too, so as to ease things more. And so we’re walkin’ along of him, and if you say we were hevin’ a hard time of it, I’ll answer you that it be paradise like in the Sultan’s harem gardens. Because when we get to Vida and turn through the Iron Gate, that the Turks call Demirkapia, it’s enough to make your mummies weep. Granddaddy Yovan pulls like a hero, and the muscles on his big neck stand out as clear, you’ll say, more like that geographical map of schoolmaster Dobroplod, with its stand up mountains and its gouged out seas, than the neck of any livin’ beast or creature. But he can’t manage to move the cart forrard, he’s sunk in snow up to his tummy. That snow path what Assen made on his way over has been covered with snow by the blizzard. So we set to me and Assen shovelling the snow in front of us – we shovel, Granddaddy Yovan comes on, we shovel, Granddaddy Yovan comes on again. If, while we takin’ these tiny steps through the Iron Gate, it don’t be lunch time, you can come spit on my grave. Because the blizzard comes on even worse than when Assen came, “If it’d been like this, Brother Gicho, I’d have still been here, countin’ chickens, bein’ on my own.” Those were his words. “But the two of us, together as we are, it be a different matter.” A united squad can lift a mountain, as they do say. Well they’d find it hard to lift a mountain, but that just remains a story and a mythological dream. You could say we have a much easier task, cuttin’ out a path. And we did cut it out. At long last we get through the pass and we’re comin’ down the road to Medven and Zheravna, and things get much easier, so that after the iron gate, it looks like a straight path through the flat, and indeed it is like that in places. But the mountains, the forests, boy, white all over, snow hangin on the branches of the trees, because the wind has calmed, it’s not blowin’ at all, and a quiet has descended like in the underworld, only the crunch of the cart on the road, like Assen clearin’ his throat for a mornin’ cough. Me and Assen climb up again and rest a little, but Granddaddy Yovan knows his job and zig-zags his way forrard. We drink a little rakia with Assen for refreshment, and the conversation turns to the national Cause, and how I missed Levski comin’ to Kotel to create the committee, and in turn who’s the greatest revolutionary in Bulgaria. Assen says: “Accordin’ to my way of thinkin’ the greatest revolutionary be Levski.”
“When you goin’ to be filled up sayin’ one and the same thing,” says I. “Look at your uncle Dimitur Obshti. Levski’s good, no gainsayin’ that, but Obshti’s the biggest revolutionary in this land. You now goin’ to see him for the first time and you’ll be convinced. Levski do duck and weave a bit. Look now, he comes to Kotel, they didn’t think me worthy to call me for the foundin’ of the committee, but then later Father Yanko gave the lowdown on the project. Committees and such like. That’s what Levski has in mind. But this task sometimes needs you to pick up a gun and fire it at the Turk. Just like Obshti does. Apart from that the revolution needs money. Those clever-clogs in Romania, Daddy Liben etcetera, the central Committee, so called, they need to get money from somewhere, don’t they? I mean they need money for other stuff, ‘cos they don’t give out guns for free. All very well settin’ up committees, but what you goin’ to do without cash? Are you goin’ to fight the Turk bare handed? You need money for weapons, boy. You’ll squeeze bright coins out of the black governors. This kind of stuff comes from Obshti. Look, when we struck the last time in the Vratna Pass, how much money was collected for the Cause? What do you think?” I turn towards Assen.
“So how much was it?” says he.
“Heck of a lot! I absolutely envy you, believe me, that for the first time you goin’ to see Obshti. The biggest revolutionary, a standout example. Such a hero, you hev not seen. What a man!”
Assen he cries “Bravo, bravo!” But I’m seein’ that his agreement is one inch short of wholehearted.
And so taken up with talk we go on our way, but it begins to get dark – in Feb’ry that happens pretty early, so we turned off at Medven, to spend the night there. We went to ’Spensive Stanko’s inn (there en’t another inn there, that’s a fact.) and it en’t no accident he so called, and that they say he’s got strong Jewish roots – don’t pay attention he’s called Stanko. Folk do say, that his father, when he went down south in Rumelia – were it in Plovdiv or somewhere, he came across a Jewish lass fallen on bad times and whether it were her cunning enchantments or whether it was him head over heels in love, I cannot say, but he took this lass and brought her to Medven and made her his wife. And they do say she was a divorcee from a Salonika Jewish family. And as they had children and they began to grow, Stanko’s great-uncle Petyo, he would say: These, they en’t like our family, boy. They got Jewish blood, completely different folk. You look, he say, their father’s a lazybones, whole day lyin’ on the couch and if he moves from one side to the other, lifts a couple of plates or counts two plus two, he breaks a sweat, but that lot, cries he, their eyes sparkle, their brains cut like a razor and they sniff out profit like a huntin’ dog do boar tracks. Aar, he declare, such folk can’t come from our stoopid side o’ the family, they got the Salonika genes. And well these folk got busy and now they’re the richest people in Medven. ’Spensive Stanko, he got the inn from his father, and with his two brothers he got plenty of pubs in Medven and just say the word and they’ll lend you money at interest, don’t you doubt that one second, and they own cardin’ and fullin’ mills. He don’t know no Hebrew, because that Salonika lass didn’t teach her children, nor her grandchildren neither, but kept her entire past a strict secret, who she were and what she were, but over time folk worked out this and that, and so they said that this Stanko howmsoever he looks and is named, he’s a Jew, and his brain’s wired up different, not like a simple Bulgarian.
When we come upon him, he straightaway starts up with the Jewish cunning and flattery: “My dear people, I’ll give you the very best chamber, while the sun shines, so you can rest from your hard journey, and I’ll give it you for half the price, boys, ‘cos you be such good guests, just for twenty pence, it be yours.”
“Bugger, what you talkin’ about!” I say. “You,” I shout. “Don’t with come out with these ’ere foreign tricks and drive me mad, ’cos we en’t born yesterday. You go,” I say “with these ’ere tales to Plovdiv, there you can set off Jews ’gainst Greeks and Armenians, so we see who’s the most cunnin’.”
“Aaah Jews is the most cunning,” Assen pipes up next to me, and he shakes his head and, who knows why, he crosses hisself. “Armenians watch the grass grow.”
And ’Spensive Stanko listens and smirks. Sweetie, I know you inside out! And he says: “Come, come, let me show you this bootiful chamber, which I can give you for fifteen pence.” So he’s droppin five pence right off, crafty bugger.
And we climb up to the second floor of the inn and he shows us into a room, and it’s really like the sun be shinin’ boy, everythin’ clean and tidy, like a Pasha been livin’ in it. And ’Spensive Stanko says: “Here you are! This loverly room that I’m givin’ you for fifteen to twenty pence”
And I say:”En’t you got no shame Stanko! What,” I ask, “is this room? This be,” says I, “like like some dungeon in Tophane Prison, and they give those for free. You just look,” I cry, “No light whatever gets in.”
“No light comes in, boy,” he says, “because it’s already dark.”
He do hev a point, I think, quite right. Still I says to ’im: “Don’t you come all over with me.” I cry. “This dark cell could go for five pence, but anymore, it would be a sin against God to ask a feller.”
And so we take turns twistin’ back and forth, and finally we agree on eight pence. And that’s a lot, but with ’Spensive Stanko, you can’t come out ahead. Truth to tell I get along alright with Jewish folk. You just hev to hev eyes in the back of your head. They don’t think badly of you, they just wants to take your money, and if possible all of it and if possible more quick. But for that stuff, they’re no way different from our forest lads, we’ll agree. While forest lads look at you hard and aim a pistol at your head, the Jews will talk the gentle talk, slightly bowin’ even, and put their heart on their sleeve and smother you with manners. This be summat else. And if their brain cut once, it practically cuts in half. For trade and such like they en’t got no equals. Like they say, they’ll sell you horse shit ’stead of plums and you’ll eat it so sweetly that you’ll even be spittin’ out the stones. Ey what folks!
But whatever, me and Assen we put up in this room, each to his own couch, and we pass the evenin’ pleasantly. The day’s been difficult and after we’ve eaten, I drop off without realisin’ from fatigue, so I don’t wake up till the next mornin’. And such a day, you’ll reckon that what we lived through day before, had never been. Sun shinin’ bright, the snow shinin’ like some precious stone, not a gram of wind. Otherwise dry cold is the holdin’ strong, the snow crunches underfoot, but with no wind and the sun shinin, you got to feel like a yuman bein’, and filled with a winter courage. And so we set out from the inn. Stanko sees us off graciously and even gives us a little cheese wrapped in a cloth, and that for no money, and we’re off for our Cause. And things goin’ very well for us, until we come out on the main road from Kotel to Sliven, and there whatever’s happenin’ with Granddaddy Yovan, I can’t tell you., but as often as not he stops, then starts, and stops, as if to take a look around him. Then he starts, then he stops again. Bugger me I say to myself, whatever’s happenin’ to this creature, is he ailin’ or something, we get down and look him over, me and Assen, but there en’t nothin’ wrong with him. I talk gently to him first, and then still lightly, with threats, and I pull his reins, and he looks at me so quiet and peaceful and just occasionally bares his teeth and blows in your face. Boy his breath do pong, of a plague pit. It hits you bang in the nose, so you’re pushed back. But it en’t from some illness, it’s just that he stinks. And it’s not that he’s hungry, he were well fed in the inn – it’s just this, he don’t want to move, he walks, walks then stops, like he’s goin’ for a country stroll and lookin’ at nature. One point he starts up proper, and I jump up on the cart and we travel an hour or so, then he stops again.
“This Granddaddy Yovan, I’ve good mind to hang him off a tree bough.” Says I.
“You can’t hang him off a tree bough.” Assen objects and nods his head. “Bough ‘d break.”
“I’ll hang you then!” I shout.
“Me is more likely,” Assen agrees. “But why?”
“Because you damned us with this cursed horse!”
“It was as far as my savin’s went,” Assen replied somewhat coolly. “And there en’t nothin’ wrong with him. He’s all right.”
Well in that case why don’t he go?” I says.
“He’ll go,” Assen replies. “Soon as the creature gets his spirits back. Anyway maybe it’s nice for him to stop from time to time and look around. Do you know what’s goin’ on in his head?”
And it’s true, you don’t know! Because he suddenly changes his behaviour and starts up trottin’ like the ’ealthiest, most proper horse, without stoppin’ again. For me this were the only defect. Otherwise, round about the sun shinin’ nicely, the snow cordially gleamin’ on the road and the trees, the sky stretching friendly and blue above you: it made a heart glad to see. It cheers up my heart so that I begin to josh Assen that somehow or other he might turn out to be a gypsy. And he starts up and shouts. “No! How’s that be!”
‘Well, I don’t know,” says I to him. “But that Assen sounds a little gypsy. Don’t say that in the end, you turn out you be a Zherevna pikey. That Stanko’s supposedly called Stanko, but there’s something hidden behind that….Assen, Hassan…it’s all cloudy with you.”
But Assen insists that Assen is a Bulgarian name, because we’ve had a Tsar Assen the Great.
“There en’t never been such a Tsar,” says I to him, playin’ him up. “You’ll be sayin’ in a minute we’ve had Hassan the Great as a Tsar. I mean a Bulgarian Tsar.”
However he turns out informed, because he’s read Paisi’s book. And so we talkin’ about books, and I show him the “Freedom” newspaper out of my back pocket and “Woodland Wayfarer” out of my bag.
“Well, you just look what I brung,” says Assen and gives me the reins, after which he turns back and tries to pull out the bag, but he’s a poor short-arse bugger, and he can’t reach, so he has to crawl into the cart, “Don’t worry,” he says “I’m not goin’ to be kickin’ you.” So then he gets his bag and pulls out “Fish Alphabet.” “Along of shepherding, boy, I forgot most everythin’.”
I blow on it in my hands, as it’s stuck together and I leaf through the alphabet. It be an old edition which has still got a boy on the front. I still can’t make out what that boy is holdin’. Old pointless stuff. But this book’s been through the wars, as I look at it. Somewhere pages missin’ somewhere all crumpled and in some places they sort of gleam, like they been polished in fat.
“Why these pages gleamin’? Assen, boy?” I ask him.
“Oh mate, I got this alphabet from my Uncle Dimitur. He give it me. And he had the habit, mornings when he got up, to read and sometimes out loud to me. And he breakfasted on warm rakia and lard. And from the lard, sometimes his fingers got a little greasy and where he touched he left a little of his prints. Let this be a souvenir of me, he says. I mean the alphabet.”
“Well he’s certainly left you souvenirs!” I say and shake my head. “Mr Beron, if he knew what happens with his book, would throw himself off a Paris bridge into the river.”
“What?” Assen wondered. “Is there a river there?”
This was something I hadn’t thought to ask myself. But I says: “Of course there is, definite! Why wouldn’t there be? There’s everythin’ in Paris. Kotel and Zherevna got one, so why not Paris.”
But this seems too much like overdoin’ it. Because isn’t the book called fish Alphabet, and when you open it, it’s glistenin’ like fish scales. Get it! A bloke would think that it’s been made this way on purpose. When I say this to Assen his face lights up and he says: “You see, you see!” And he began to happily hug the pages. “My uncle Dimitur,” he says, “I know that you don’t exactly approve of him, but you’re not right, boy, because he’s got a fine understandin’, a true jack of all trades. He understands carpentry, farmin’, buildin’, if you just know how much he knows, he knows every detail about dyin’ wool and he knows how to read books, everythin’ comes easy to him.
I hold my tongue all this time, I listen and dare not for the world say what I’m thinkin’, so as not to burst Assen’s balloon. His uncle Dimitur….If you want to know find out what a nincompoop windbag is, you got to get acquainted with him. Otherwise you’d die and never know what kind of bloke be a nincompoop windbag. You might think you know, but you don’t know. Go to Zherevna and say: “By the way, some folks do tell me that here with you there’s a bloke who’s a nincompoop and windbag, who’s like a dandelion head in the wind, but who could this bloke be?” Don’t you worry, they’d lead you straight to Assen’s uncle, you can’t miss. But Assen has him down as some Greek god, pretty much. Uncle Dimitur this, boy, Uncle Dimitur that. He’s a simple lad, Assen. But otherwise he’s a good’un, and most important – he got talent. He just need to brush hisself up and stand straight and become a real European. Or at the very least, half a European. At all events, he not goin’ to stay a simple Zherevna shepherd, I’ll bet my shoes on that.
And so what with chattin’ about this and that, before we know it we get to Ichera. We deviatin’ to see The Mad Kamcha river, it be froze from the banks, ten steps in, and at the end of the freeze, you can see a thin ice skin, it be transparent and under it the water do flow. On the other side we see some children hev climbed up the hillock and are makin’ a snowman. And here Granddaddy Yovan as he was amblin’ came to a halt again. Assen says: “Well seein’ as how, like it or not, the creature hev stopped, let’s go up to them kids, to cheer ourselves up a bit and relax.”
“All right,” says I, “Let’s go,” and we climb up to them. We get stuck in to helpin’ with the snowman, me to one side rollin’ up snowballs and shovin’ them towards the snowman, and Assen makin’ merry there with the kids and workin’ up the snowman’s features. The kids perked up, wonderful, when they see us, and they’re mostly lads, between seven and ten year old, might be some a bit older. They get stuck in.
However I grab the ear of one of ‘em who tells me his name’s Christaki, in spite of him bein’ clearly Bulgarian, but Assen calls out: “Leave ‘im be, boy, that’s how his father be bringin’ him up”. Fuckin’ Greekifyin’ craze, spreadin’ through Bulgarians like a plague. They forever jumpin’ on some new bandwagon. I let go of the boy but he stays beside me, and carries on lookin’ frightened, like he be scared that if I move I’ll do somethin’ to him. Either I’ll give him a slap or a kick, or who knows what he be thinkin’. Assen calls him across and I tell him, that if folk ask, he should say that his name be Hristo. He nods two three times quick and runs over to the other kids. Our people are like them, these kids, so much so that you hev to pity them a little. Always scared, in just such way, their hearts shrunk up like a winter bird’s, waitin’ for someone to stroke ‘em, to pass ‘em a kind word, and only then do they open up their souls. But the world en’t like this! It en’t no way like Assen! It don’t stroke you at all, but fixes you with its harsh gaze. It just scares you with a kickin’ or deceives you with Greek cunnin’. And it weighs heavy on the soul, if there be no courage kindlin’ , and most often that be the way of it. The meek, boy, will inherit the earth. What earth? It won’t be this one. Otherwise Bulgarians would be the first in line.
I look down towards the river, and ey mate, how I fancy eatin’ summat like this – hot bread with butter and cheese! So you take the hot bread, scorchin’ and just when you break it, steam comes out of it, and straightaway you shove in a lump of butter and a little cheese, and you’ll lick your fingers. I shout to Assen: “Let’s get to Ichera quicker, I’m starvin’.”
In Ichera we’ll find that kind of bread, no sweat, because there’s a famous bakery there. And if not we’ll still find somethin’ nice.”
Assen however is still hevin’ a jolly old time and he won’t start. “Right away, right away,” he says but he don’t move, and is makin’ the snowman’s head with the kids. Who knows how long we’d be stayin’ there, if it weren’t for Granddaddy Yovan, startin out on his own. One minute he standin’ still, and the next minute he settin’ off and us, we’re shoutin’ and runnin’ after him and just as well he walkin’ slowly in his own sweet way, lackadaisical like, so we catch up with him easy and throw ourselves into the cart. So after we get to the inn and this bloke says, “Hot bread, boy, we got. Right now we’ll get it out.”
So when he brings this bread, and I tear it, and it’s so pipin’ hot you’re tossin’ it from hand to hand, proper scorchin’, so when I put a lump of butter inside and watch how it just begins to melt away, and when I take out the cheese that ’Spensive Stanko gave us, and all about us, such a sweet smell comin’ out of the bread, a miracle. Well it be beyond the tellin’. That’s the life!
Then we filled up the flask and another one for the journey, but we decide not to travel no more today, but stay over to sleep in the lean-to, alongside the animals, includin’ Granddaddy Yovan and some folks from Turnovo, and thus we spent the night. These folk from Turnovo gave us some drink from baccy, and I swig it and shout, “Its over, Febr’y’s done and dusted”. Then after I fell asleep.
Oh you granny March, fuck your mother, along of you. Today March starts up and we’re carryin’ on towards Sliven and the weather do take a monstrous turn for the worse. En’t no snowfall, but the wind blowin up so keen, just a little more and it’ll blow you away. Says I to myself, we goin’ towards Sliven in this ’ere wind, we’ll be actually flyin’ before we get there! We’ll be whirled up on high along of the town of Sliven itself, may the dogs gobble it up, high in the sky like some Jerusalem angels. I shout to Assen: “Assen,” says I, “If you were to climb Karandila, in this weather and jump, you’d fly right over Sliven before you smashed your head.”
“On the contrary!” says he, “don’t you bet on that. This sort of weather there be roof-tiles flyin’, they can kill you while you’re still up in the air! You’ll plummet like some partridge!”
Assen, poor bugger, he holdin on to the cart for dear life like me, so the wind don’t toss him out, and, mates, everythin’s shrinkin’ in slow motion, you see folk runnin’ through yards to get home more quick., we’re hunched up into balls, only Granddaddy Yovan trots on unruffled, as only he know how, like he knows nothin’ is happenin’. Surely it’s because he already got one foot in the grave and so don’t give a tuppenny damn, still for the whole way, he don’t stop, but keeps up a steady pace. But his pace is as slow as always, as if to say: Fuck you, wind, I en’t a goin’ to rush because of you. You’re not goin’ to put me off.”
I’m already beginning to look at Granddaddy Yovan with new eyes. I ’ppreciate he got character (fine tuned spirits and way of thinkin’). You come across this often with animals, and with folk as well – though with folk less often, because everythin’s so set up that you don’t hev this special somethin’ but you do the same as everybody else. You can hev character only if you get to be the boss, but otherwise you can’t and there en’t many bosses. That’s why character be a rarity.
Let’s face it, there be some who hev nothing else apart from character.
Meanwhile, from Ichera as you goin’ towards Sliven, you go through the Gotsen pass and right under the cliffs. One side is Karandila and on the other side the Gavans. The sharp mountain peaks bite into the grey sky and now that they’re white with snow and frozen, they look even more evil-disposed. You’d think that the white witch herself lived there. Well she could, for all I know. From here the road goes through a vineyard and then below the Brigands Cave, then under the Eagle and the Snake Holes. You can’t see them from the road, but I know where they are, so many brave lads have hidden there. There’s no treasure there, I can tell you that for a fact. Well bugger me if as soon as we pass these rocks and ridges, we en’t comin’ down into Sliven.
Mates, we didn’t blow away but there was still a bit left. I look at Granddaddy Yovan, and the creature’s spooked a little, because the wind is pushin’ him sideways. Assen’s holdin’ on to the seat with one hand and with the other keepin’ his fur hat on his head. “Boy, what a bugger!” he shouts – “what a bugger” meanin’ it’s blowin’ up a gale. But what do you expect? Here three winds get together from the three passes.
“This town, Sliven,” says I, “do need some disaster to destroy and bury it ‘neath the ground. There as it’s standin’ to demolish it.”
“Why?” shouts Assen.
“Eh, just for this, the wind hev blown away their senses and just gusted in gypsies.”
“Too right!” cries Assen. “You’re spot on there.”
“Look how it blows. It cut you to the bone. And everythin’ else outside.”
“That do come from the Blue Rocks,” cries Assen. “There it’s like an enormous fan. My Uncle Dimitur, he says that once he went there and his piss froze. ‘Just as I’m pissin’ and it freeze as it flies through the air. Where it fall,’ he says, ‘it crunches, like you walkin’ on glass. That be from the cold. And because the wind be blowin’’ he says, ‘it blows it off sideways. From one end water do come out and at the other end it falls like an icicle two three metres away, because the wind hev shifted it.’”
“Oh your Uncle Dimitur, he always rabbitin’ on like this.”
“Oh no you don’t, don’t you get started. Whatever he says is God’s truth. He’s lived a lot, he’s seen all kinds of stuff.”
I hold my tongue.
“But Sliven on the other hand”, Assen continues after a short pause. “It’s got many warriors, fighters for our freedom.”
“That’s true, that’s true,” I agree.
“And it’s also got lots of folk drivin’ for education.”
“And also it’s never changed its name. Out of the whole of Bulgaria, it be the only one as never took a Turkish name, but kept its old Bulgarian one.”
“Even that be true,” I admit.
And so what you goin’ to say?” presses Assen.
“Bugger, I still say bury it!”
But it weren’t buried, don’t you worry and with God’s help we get ourselves to Hadzhi Petrov’s inn. Once you get into the town it en’t blowin’ so bad, because the houses do hamper the wind little by little. It’s just when you come to a crossroads, when you poke your noses out it hits you, but you survive. You can survive anythin’. But fancy flyin’ tiles. Two of them shatter right by us, so that for the first time in his life, Granddaddy Yovan breaks into a gallop and as we makin’ for Hadzhi Petrov’s inn, it en’t no picnic. All the while, in no time at all you hear how the tiles are smashin’ in side streets, and behind your backs, maybe – you don’t hear nothin’, you be in God’s hands. But howmsoever we get safe to the aforementioned Hadzhi Petrov Inn, which is called “Under the Elm tree” because its situated right by an enormous elm tree, which they do say has been stuck there for fuckin’ forever. Tsar Ivan Shisman planted it, or maybe some maiden who afterwards threw herself off a cliff. And why did she throw herself off a cliff. You’ll have to pardon me but I can’t rightly remember. For love, certain. Why else do gels throw theirselves off cliffs? Would you throw yourself off a cliff if you were in your right mind? No never! But they be driven mad from love. This be just like the Greekification plague. But it do spread mostly through the gels, the fair sex, and just when they’re young. Like chicken pox kills off the kids, so love do kill them. But later they learn arithmetic and start countin’ up the money…This elm, by the way, along of the inn beside it is right bang in the centre of Sliven, you can’t miss it, it be right by the clock tower. The clock stands at ten Turkish time, which is Bulgarian four in the evenin’. In Hadzhi Petrov’s inn it’s cheaper than in ’Spensive Stanko’s in that out of the way village of Medven, but here it’s just one room – pretty much like in the Tophaniski Prison, and there are four of us billy-goats stuck in there, with some builders from Rumelia, set out to seek work in the wide world. They thinkin’ of goin to Russe, that there be lots of Austrians buildin’ houses.
But they leave the next day, but we stop over, because we hev a few days business in Sliven. We want to get some kind of firearm (gun), not that we need one, but you know they make them here, you can find really good guns here at a real knock-down prices. Be that as it may, we don’t get no gun, but we do get summat else done. Some point, I say to Assen: “Come on,” I say, “let’s you and me go and hev a bath, since you know, winter is now over, we can hev a good scrub over, go to the Djinovo baths, we can bathe in hot water.”
And he says: “If we’re goin’ to do that, let’s go to Nalbantare to the blacksmiths, to change the horse’s shoes. He could be stoppin’ from time to time because of that.”
Meanwhile we look at his shoes and we don’t see nothin’ wrong, but I says to myself, as we goin’ to the baths, it won’t hurt to go to Nalbantare to change his shoes just in case. Because it’s just one hour’s walk from the Jinov baths, that won’t be no sweat. And the baths themselves – I don’t know if you been there – be just three hours walk from Sliven, it be quicker with a horse, but it’s a lovely trip to relax and have a wash. When you leave Sliven, you go through the Rechitsa district, where there’s Chairly village, and from there you carry on down to the Tundzha, or the Yavoritz river in Bulgarian. I’ve been here, along of our great-coat trade. In this region you find a gatherin’ of picturesque villages, you look and you say: How bootiful our land is! To the west is Kasamovo, named after Kassam Aga, and further on Dermendere, Kyuchukcheshly, Byuyukcheshly. And Karasarly; to the south are Juinovo, Nalbantare, Tursunly, Kursanly,Ekyoi, Mechkarovo, and Genzhaly; a little further to one side you find Cherkeshly, Demirdzhily, Aladagly and Artaklare, and right at the end are Chokoba, Kyopekly and finally Bozadzhy. And Bulgarian is spoke everywhere, and peaches grow mightily.
We get to the baths, but we pass ‘em by because we decide to take the horse to Nalbantare, and ‘stead of waitin’ there all that time, go back to the Djinovo baths, to wash ourselves, and then come and get Granddaddy Yovan. And don’t you know it turns out this be a wise move, because the blacksmiths there are up to their eyes in work, and we’d be waitin’ there the whole day like headless chickens. Our smith just shucks off Granddaddy Yovan’s shoes and puts him to wait in a queue. You come back , he says, late in the afternoon. Assen takes the horse shoes, ties them together with string two by two, hangs them, one over each shoulder, and we set off for the baths. Throw ‘em away, I tell him, those old shoes, what use are they to you; but he don’t want to. “A little bit more don’t make your head hurt.” Oh bugger it, he’s the one carryin’ ’em, he can do what he wants.
And at the baths, what joy, mates! Folk splashin’ , steam comin’ out their mouths, because it still be cold, even though the sun’s shinin’ and steam’s risin’ from the water, because it be damn hot. We get undressed to our underpants and got into the pool, and Assen says: “Water heats you up proper from the bottom but the air above fair wrinkles you.”
I hold my nose with my fingers like a peg, and I plunge myself whole under the water, even my head. And Assen laughs, and shakes and shouts “O-o-oh, boy, I thinks to myself, Brother Gicho gone and drowned in the hot water!”
“Just here,” says I, “some superstitious simpletons do tell that Chiy Ali drowned seventy brides, that he then buried by Chokoba village in a place called Sheklara.
Assen says: “He had a lot of brides.”
“No,” says I, “They weren’t his. Even Turks can’t manage that many, don’t even think it! They were Bulgarian brides, he took ’em from neighbourin’ villages and drowned ’em, because he were a hermit of the Muslim faith and hated women like the plague. They called this Chiy Ali a djin, because he were like an evil spirit, and Djinovo village is named after him, and he found this here in the woods, and came here to wash…Now you just soap my back a little.”
Assen tuts and soaps me and just says, “My what stuff, my what stuff”, and altogether the boy feels good. And then in turn I help Assen and who knows how much time we sittin’ in the water but in the end, we hev to get out. We take our clothes and run to the cabins – one for men, one for women, which some Turks hev built next to the baths, and they even make coffee for ten pennies a cup. It en’t much, the price, but they sweeten it with treacle and it makes for a strange taste. They sell boza there too, sprinkled with cinnamon, after their own way. We get changed in the cabin and drink a coffee with boza, bein’ so cheap it would hurt your heart to turn it down. There again it en’t bad at all.
I says to Assen: “If ’Spensive Stanko were to come across this ’ere, no-one lower than a Bey could be allowed in! Let’s eat”, I say “and drink before Stanko and his brothers en’t found this place. Sooner or later,” I cry, “Stanko’s brothers will be in charge of everythin’, so let’s make the most of it, while there’s still time.”
And Assen, he do laugh and gulps down the coffee and the boza.
And so while we’re talkin’ I look out the door and see two enormous ox wagons arrivin’ with Turks, they’re covered with bright cloth with women inside. They’re whole families of nomads, them that travel round in covered ox wagons, just like the Gerilovo Turks, only that their wagons be wider and lower on the ground, and these be with high awnin’s, travellin’ wagons, meant for folk. I says to myself they bound for Sliven. And they gettin’ down from the wagons to have a bath. And then the thought strikes me. I look about and see a bloke dressed more wealthy, so I turn to him so as to inquire: “ Efendi,” says I, “what be the time?
It’s six, that be twelve in Bulgarian – lunch time. We still hev a few hours, before we hev to go back to Nalbantare. I pull Assen outside and I tell him: “Assen, boy, we’re startin’ on the Cause right now!”
That evenin’ we’re travellin’ all night through, with no stoppin’, as we’re takin’ a roundabout path, goin’ back on ourself, so we be pullin’ wool over the eyes of anyone who’s supposedly followin’ us, who could send word for the Turks to send out patrols to chase us. They’ll be chasin’ us in the direction we started out on and we’ll be goin’ contrary. If they had an ounce o’ sense they’d send out patrols to look for us in all directions, but what Turk would do that for the sake of some unbelievers’ caravan. Forget it. The most they do is send two constables up the road for two three days, so they can get a little exercise. And I doubt very much they’ll even do that.
Granddaddy Yovan in the meantime, it’s like he’s realizin’ that this is the time to put on a spurt – if he not runnin’ smooth, he makin’ an effort, the critchur. Next day in the town of K, we stoppin’ in an inn to sleep. And there’s a Frenchie there, boys. Who can tell what wind have blown this Froggie here? The innkeeper makes out he’s some kind of engineer. I give the Froggie the once over – a well made bloke, with proper European clothes, a long coat to his knees, and a tie round his neck, striped gold and black, he’s carryin’ a bowler hat in ‘is hand, his trousers be pin striped silver and grey, his shoes shinin’ like the sun. Mates! It’s well elegant stuff! It en’t ’alf fine bein’ a European – I tell you true. When I’m lookin’ at him, like this so, I’m ready to weep – I say to myself, I’d like to be dressed like him, so I’d come out lookin’ like a yuman bein’ in front of other yuman bein’s, not like some oriental vassal, ruled by Abdul Aziz the Ugly. I say to myself life en’t fair.
I learnt or informed myself (as they say in French lingo) that this Froggie worked for the so-called Austrian Railways, findin’ out where they could push out the line. In the Turkish lands everythin’s been taken over by the Austrians – Austrian post office, Austrian Railways. Some day they’ll put up an Austrian Sultan – you mark my words. Turkey’s collapsin’. Down there in Anatolia the English, the proud Britishers hev gobbled up everythin’ – everythin’ worth more than five pence I mean. That’s why they’re so much for Turkey, because they care about what’s jinglin’ in their pockets. Well even though I en’t got no sympathy, I can understand (je comprendre). I care about my pocket even though I’m no Englishman. And them English and stuck up Europeans – they following a higher purpose of trade (mercantile); it leads ‘em like a guidin’ star up in the black savage Asian sky, and they do follow it with an unquenchable energy, and spirit of youth, suckin’ the golden milk out of the teats of whatever wild folks they come across, for the triumphant flowerin’ of all conquerin’ European civilization, like with what there en’t no compare and to what we are heartily strivin’ and sharpenin’ up our spirits to become a part of.. But we’re no part of it, were just stupid folk, who they shit on because that’s what we deserve.
But forget about Anatolia, just look this side of the fuckin’ Bosporus, the Austrians have grabbed up everythin’ in their paws. “By the Bosporus, clamour rises, a polishing of sword and shield; Hey it’s Simeon the Great calling his warriors to the battlefield.” And he calls on his brother-in-law’s aunt. Look Austrians and, let’s face it, Europeans hev got their claws into everythin’, finger in every pie. And this fine-talkin’ Frenchie hev put himself up to illuminate the Austrian nation with a month’s service against payment for the bringin’ about or the realization of (another French word) the aforementioned Purpose. Fuck me if I know what he do at night, but by day he’s goin’ round all the surroundin’ districts, findin’ out the lie of the land, what the local folks are sayin’ about the long dreamt for railway line. I hev never seen such a thing in my life. And don’t even ask about Assen. He’ll bombard me with stupid questions and I’ll waste valuable revolutionary time. Fuck it. Just think it over.
Bulgaria, Bulgaria….How did I end up with you. This was the biggest mistake of my life. (Mal chance in Frenchie lingo) Pig ignorant, boy! And if that weren’t enough, ruled by wild Anatolian Ottomans – jumped out of some black Asian forest, in the full moon, like werewolves or moon-sprites. They’re not your refined intelligent Messieurs and Mesdames they be wild Asian riff-raff. Some Frenchie if he see ‘em would just faint from their stink. And we live with this trash in one kingdom. But let it go, that do serve us right, because we be the ultimate scumbags, I tell you true.
And so this Frog, what I am tellin’ you about afore, is roomin’ on the top floor, same as us, on the other side of the corridor. And look how Fate do set things up that after we slept, me and Assen, I go to the yard to drink water and get something from the saddle bag and I see the Frenchie in front of me. He’s comin’ back, and as we pass, he give me a nod for fellowship and lifts his hat off his head. After a few steps on, I turn around quick to see where he’s goin’ and I see he’s goin’ up the stairs and afterwards I hear a door close. So he’s gone to ’is room. Then I have a think and I go and drink water, then I come back up and I listen through the door to see if I can hear anythin’; silence boy; can’t tell if the bloke’s asleep; who knows? When I come back to our room, I say to Assen: “Assen,” I say, “go downstairs and harness up Granddaddy Yovan so we’re ready for a quick getaway.”
“Why?” Assen wonders.
“Look boy!” I shout, “I want action not a debate. I’ll explain later.”
“But why mate?”
So I’m forced to spell it out. He goes downstairs, while I think about the Frenchie. Look where fate has cast him up. Pushin’ through the railway. The man be an engineer. That’s not simple stuff. I may not hev seen a railway but I know what it is. Railway mate, iron horse progress. Blow me fuckin’ right. This is some man – ridin’ the iron horse. Ridin’ and liftin’ his hat to folk.
And I’m just cogitatin’ this when Assen who rides our horse do come back and say “Ready mate.” I take a step down the corridor and listen in front of the door – to hear any movement inside, to see if there be people there, but I don’t hear nothin’. A little longer in front of the Froggie’s door and then I do hear somethin’, some sort of movement, maybe closin’ a cupboard door – or somethin’ like it.
Then I came back, picked up my trusty colt and other stuff and alongside Assen we stepped into the Frenchie’s room. You can imagine, he be pretty surprised. He standin’ in the middle of the room and lookin’ amazed. I step up and grab his elbow, friendly-like.
“Hand over that jacket,” I say, “and some hat if you got it.”
And he pulls back and says somethin’ you can’t understand. It’s Frenchie lingo. Somethin’ like “juju muju, jwa, mwa; on bon. But there was one word I got: “terrible, terrible,” I don’t know what he sayin. I’ll hev to look in Bogorov’s dictionary later. But what I mean to say is this European bloke can’t make hisself understood. I pulled out the purse and took out a golden coin while I explained to him as far as I could, that we couldn’t give him any more because the money was needed for the revolution. And as I said this I gave him the coin and set to pullin’ off his jacket and he’s goin: “On bon…somethin’..Jwa mwa.” And he’s pokin’ at the purse, wantin’ more gold coins.
“Oh no!” I say. “Sorry but I can’t give you any more. This is for our revolution.” And I stand up straight to him and bring my face up close to his so he’ll understand and I shout “Revolution, Revolution.” And he’s sayin’ ”terrible, terrible,” over an’ over again.
“Any fool know revolution is a Frenchie word and you don’t understand it.” I spread out my arms. “I’m ’stonished by you, boy!”
And it was then I am struck by what you might call a brilliant idea. And I shout to Assen. “Hand over Old Times.” He be quick on the uptake, and immediately remembers that I mean Rakovski’s paper, Bulgarian Old Times – I had an issue in my bag. He rummages and gives it me. And I open it at the very beginning, where there be a preface, and I point out that place to the Frenchie where it’s written:
“Here’s what a scholar has written in a book:
La philosophie Indienne est tellement vaste, que tous les systems de philososophie s’y rencontrent, qu’elle forme un monde philosophique et qu’on peut dire a la lettre que l’histoire de la philosophie ge l’Inde est un abrege de l’histoire entire de la philosophie.”
And in other words, like it’s explained underneath:
Indian Philosophy is so vast, because all philosophical approaches meet in it; it represents an entire philosophical world and it can be said that the history of Indian philosophy is precisely a précis of the whole history of philosophy.
E-ey, I’m showin’ this to the Frenchie, it’s even written in his own lingo, and it en’t nothin’ terrible, you’ll say, just philosophical stuff, and he’s lookin’ at me like I’m a horse with three legs, or I don’t know what. I say to ‘im: “We’ve come for your good; don’t you get it? Get it? You nincompoop!”
And he just waves and mumbles somethin’ fast –“jwa, mwa” – no idea what, he makes as if to leave and so I hev to grab his lapel. “Ey,” I shout out to Assen. “We landed on the stupidest Frenchie in all France.”
But Assen says, “How you think we goin’ to understand with all the differences in the lingo, boy.”
But I hev wiped out all thoughts about this from my noddle. “Here’s what we do” I say. “We’ll knock him on the bonce with this here pistol butt and be finished with all this. The bloke don’t understand us anyways.”
And all the time the Frenchie’s proddin’ the purse and pointin’ at his coat and sayin’ somethin’ “Oh mon…” this an that.
Well, I stretch out and I give him a crack on the forehead with the gun-stock, takin’ care not to wound him, and he pull back and scream out somethin’, but he don’t fall, ‘cos I tapped him too weak. I hev to give him another crack, this time harder, and he falls, knocked senseless to the floor like some sack of somethin’. And Assen jumps up behind him, looks and cries: “Gicho, boy, if you en’t damaged the bloke. Surely hope not!”
“He perfectly all right!” I say. “He’s a European bloke. He’ll soon mend. There was no other way to make ourselves understood. Don’t you see. He’ll lie down a little and he’ll get better.”
Not that I was really sure, but what can you say?
Afterwards we pulled off the Frenchie’s jacket, and pin striped trousers, the shirt as well. I saw a cravat and hat hangin’ off a hook and I nabbed them. Finally we took off his shoes. Leave off the other stuff, the trousers, after you turned ‘em up a little, fitted me perfect, as though some tailor had measured me up exact, but the shoes were a little big for me and that’s natural. The bloke was a bit bigger than us. That’s the way of it because he’s from the German folk. They’re big people, high and mighty, fuck them in their leather boots.
“We need somethin’ to put here,” I say to Assen, “to stuff the heels.”
He lookin’ about, poor boy, but suddenly his face lights up and he says, “Let’s rip the stuff out of these pillows.”
We each take a pillow and start guttin’ it, but afterwards It hit me, so I say “Boy why we doin’ two when one’ll do for us.” And we leave one to the side and we took the feathers from the other and pushed them in here and there, as needed and so my feet stuck to the shoes like they’d been poured into them.
Then I ponder a bit, and I leave two gold pieces on the table. Fuck them, they be two hundred pence . If it don’t cover all the clothes it must be almost there. Otherwise you’d say he can’t haggle, and if he can’t haggle, where’s he goin’ in this world? Anyway you hev to bear in mind, these be used clothes, worn. Two hundred pennies may be too much. Well let it fall on my head, so I get through the Araba-Kokashki pass safe and sound.
Apart from that I carefully fold up my clothes, so I leave them, in case he en’t got nothin’ else to put on, though I doubt a bloke like him wouldn’t hev a spare set of clothes. But who can tell? Don’t want him wanderin’ the streets in his underpants. I just keep my heavy boots and stockin’s, I might be needin’ them in the mountains, or somewhere else.
Then I look at the Frenchie, as though I hev it in mind to bid him farewell, but he just lyin’ spark out, his mouth open, like he sleepin’ like an innocent baby. But his heart is beatin’, as I check his chest, he’ll be right as rain.
“Ey,” I say, “If there was anythin’, forgive us!”
“If there’s anythin’, there’s nothing,” Assen pipes up.