Translation: Christopher Buxton, 2010
For there are many indeed of those who lift their eyes as seldom as possible towards the other world and its works, as they are interested only in what is to be seen here, down below – creations of evil, corruption and vainglory – and that which has surely originated in nothingness will be returned thither. We say that there exists another world and other creation – incorporeal and eternal – which encompasses our joy and hope.
From a 13th Century Anonymous Bogomil Tract
The Swarthy Girl
1. The old helmet
I spotted it the moment we entered the cellar. It was lying on top of a pile of hay, cut goodness knows when. Grandpa Francois noted my inquisitive look and hurried to explain:
“That’s a French helmet. It’s from the Great War.”
I nodded, although I didn’t understand everything that he said, because of his dialect. I realized that lying in front of me was a soldier’s helmet from the First World War. The question was why was it here? It was as if the old man understood me and continued:
“It was my uncle’s, my father’s brother, who adopted me…”
And he carried on telling the story in his tuneful French, which he’d spoken all his life in the picturesque stone village of his birth, Puy D’Arnac, nestling under a cloudy hill, ten kilometers from the medieval town of Bealieu on the river Dordogne.
From his granddaughter, Nicole, I’d already learnt how he’d not had much luck with fathers: his real one passed away when Francois was still a baby, and his uncle who adopted him and fought against the Kaiser in the war in question, didn’t live to see his new son grow into a man, and as for his late good-natured stepfather, even he didn’t succeed in caring long for the son of twice widowed Claudette: really Grandpa Francois had no luck with fathers. On the other side of the coin fate had decreed that both he and Mama Claudette would have live long, drinking life to the very bottom of the cup.
And so, there, below, in the spacious and empty cellar, with a pile of straw and a soldier’s helmet in front of him, the short wiry old man, standing opposite me with his big ears, neat red hair and watery blue eyes, was a whole ninety one years old – faraway more than the sum of the ages of all his fathers. I’d even heard Nicole say, and this in a tone of unconcealed pride, on the occasion of the English Queen’s first (and probably the last) visit to Toulouse, just a week earlier: “She needn’t think it’s only her mother who’s a centenarian. My Great Grandmother lived to one hundred and five!”
“Maybe I should take it to the museum in Beaulieu, what do you think?” Grandpa Francois asked, pointing at the helmet.
“Well, I suppose so, yes” I answered quietly, with a smile more intended to assuage the guilt of the old man with a centenarian mother and talented granddaughter. Although still young, Nicole was an extremely promising artist.
“How have I forgotten it here?” he tut-tutted and seized on explaining to me what the place where we found ourselves had been like years before.
I gazed unwillingly at the helmet’s gloomy surface, and gradually stopped listening to Grandpa Francois’ tale. I just heard his throaty singsong voice, as though, who else but his late compatriot Jean Gabin was standing reincarnated next to me and was recounting the latest story of the eternal French peasant. My eyes blurred.
The face that swam into my vision now was that of a Bulgarian peasant, my dead Grandfather, Luka Tsolovski from Golyamo Murchevo, near Ferdinand, who was sitting exhausted somewhere by Gevgele and who with his frozen thumb- nails was popping the latest louse gathered from his twenty one year old body – that was still alive in the stupid great war of nations. In the distance the accompanying thunder of the big guns rumbled, together with the dry whizz and deadly howl of the mortars. That’s where the guardian-uncle would have been with his head protected by the mute helmet – then still new and shiny, with no idea of its immortality.
Grandfather Luka had told me of his three years spent on the front lines, wagons, field hospitals and different billets in his role as orderly – his final position after being wounded and restored to health; he’d cursed the nation’s big-wigs and politicians, because they’d destroyed eight years of his youth. Because for him the Great War ended in mutiny; after its suppression, as a sign of favour from Tsar and fatherland, Private Tsolovski was sent to Berkovitsa prison, only for revolutionaries to free him in the 1923 revolt. After its suppression, he was saved by a miracle: he’d thrown his rifle and sabre into a common heap, before being driven along with the other rebels towards the barges designated as watery graves, then anchored alongside the little town of Lom. And so he struck lucky, they didn’t lock him into the iron hold and sink him; some lawyer wanted him to help in his chambers. Although he was a peasant, my Grandfather Luka could read and write even then.
“Papa, lunch is ready!” we heard the voice of Monique, Grandpa Francois’ only daughter and mother to Nicole.
The old man grunted and led me back up the stairs. We emerged outside the old stone house and I felt the warm March wind that came from the south. In Bulgaria at this time there was still snow. It had been foggy and cold just three days earlier and here even the camellias were blooming.
I shared my wonder as we sat down round the table for lunch, as I didn’t omit adding that the day before my setting out for France, there were still ice floes on the Danube. The two of them were astonished – Surely Bulgaria can’t be that far to the north! It isn’t, but the ice was real.
“In Puy D’Arnac it rarely snows. Well, when it does, it doesn’t last more than half an hour. We’re all pleased, especially the children, but just for a short while… Tell us about the Danube!” she begged, as she ladled soup into the bowls; of course first for Grandpa Francois, even though he signaled that she ought to have started with me as the guest.
His daughter paid him no attention; waiting to learn something more about the longest European river which sadly did not flow through her country.
I pondered, what indeed could I tell them about the Danube? A river like any river! So much has been written about it – songs and poems and God knows what – that if it was a person it would have dried up from conceit. But the Danube, thank the Lord, doesn’t care a fig. It rolls by with no memory, bringing joy and work to the people. For me it is the most immense, the most unforgettable, the most terrifying river that I have ever seen. The MOST river – in capital letters, eternal like the earth and sun, sometimes as absurd as death itself! I’d grown up by the Danube and I couldn’t imagine life without its waters and its smells. I felt empty if I didn’t see it at least once in a year. Even on the day before leaving for France I walked a long time along its bank, I gazed into its savage body, whipped up by the March wind and the ice blocks still flowing by. “Will I see you again, Danube?” I had cried out in pain, but now I answered Monique: “The Danube is a magic river!” And, completely out of the blue, I added: “Sometimes I have the feeling that it flows in my blood.”
“Interesting connection!” Grandpa Francois’ daughter replied, as she left the soup tureen to take her place at table. “You surely love it a lot?”
“I worship it! Who doesn’t love rivers?”
“Aaah!” Grandpa Francois intervened. “Rivers are cursed beings!” (He used this precise word – beings!) “They give but they also take away. For example, I fell out of love with the Dordogne after it killed my friend Marcel…”
“It’s different for everyone, Papa,” Monique interrupted.
The old man frowned – clearly he didn’t like to be interrupted, but he did not carry on. He noisily slurped his soup, defying his daughter’s reproachful look.
“And the helmet?” I tried to divert the conversation away from the old man’s tragic memory. “It’s been lying down there the whole time?”
“I expect so, I don’t remember,” he mumbled through the soup.
“What helmet?” Monique asked him.
“My uncle’s, from the war…”
“It was in the attic, but I moved it to the cellar, when we had a clear-out so we could make a studio for Nicole. It turned out wonderful. You’ll see it later.”
“You could have told me then, so I could have given it to the museum, and not now to embarrass me in front of the boy,” her father scolded her, without lifting his eyes from his bowl.
“Papa, that’s one of the most common or garden helmets!”
“No it isn’t! It’s been to war and you haven’t.”
“And thank God!” Monique smiled and then looked at me as if to say. “Don’t pay him any mind – old fellow!”
I nodded understandingly and I concentrated on the soup. Silence fell, broken only by the clinking of spoons and Grandpa Francois’ abrupt slurping.
As I ate I considered the helmet. The following thought occurred to me: along with the guardian-uncle, it had gone to war with my own grandfather. The two men had probably come face to face on the battlefield. It’s entirely possible – why not? I imagined how they would have charged one against the other, out of their wits from terror and fury, hearts thumping to breaking point from buzzing adrenalin. “Fix bayonets! Hooray!” They echoed through fields and forests. The shouts, the curses and the groans were mixed into the cacophony shot through with the smell of blood and gunpowder. Over the grass of no-man’s-land fell the dead adult bodies of Europe’s one-time children. Then they were not playing a game of soldiers. They killed each other for real, and then the survivors fell prey to the absurd human condition and once more bought toy weapons for the world’s new children. “Humans have no mercy!”, my Grandfather liked to say. I couldn’t disagree with him. He’d lived through two wars and a number of coups – and me? What did I know with my fifty years, lived in peace! For me war was a TV absurdity, inevitable part of the planet’s everyday life, with which, alas, we had been fed to the very gills.
“Do you know that this helmet saved my uncle?” Grandpa Francois turned to his daughter.
“Isn’t that why they were worn?” she smiled politely.
“You don’t understand a thing!” the old man snapped, then he asked me: “Have you been a soldier?”
The question took me by surprise. More than twenty years had passed since I was in the barracks. Like every Bulgarian man, I could talk about it for hours, except now it was hardly fitting. “Yes, in Bulgaria, during the timer of Socialism, military service was compulsory.”
“And quite right too! Man is the fighter and women have to bear children!”
“Rubbish, Papa, War is bestial.
“You don’t understand anything,” the old man again whispered and carried on eating.
Monique once again cast me an apologetic look and got up to fetch the main course. It was lamb cooked to her late mother’s special recipe. Along with the food, she put the already uncorked bottle of Mavrud Special Reserve, which I had brought as a present. Grandpa Francois poured out a little, looked at it like a connoisseur, then took a sip, held it in his mouth, swallowed and said: “And you make good wines. Before the war there were two Bulgarians in the harvest gang and they often talked about that.”
Wine seemed a preferable subject and I used it to say some more about our famous varieties. I knew that talking to the French about wine or cheese is a sign of bad taste, but in spite of this, it would be more a happier topic than war, which – just the second world war – Grandpa Francois had “sampled” too. (Just after Hitler’s armies had broken through the Maginot line, he was taken prisoner, but managed to escape and later joined the resistance army of Charles de Gaulle.)
“Of course our wines don’t bear comparison with yours,” I concluded politely and only then did I dare to pour some of the superb Bulgarian Mavrud for Monique and myself.
Finally it was time for the inevitable cheeses – from which goat’s “Rocamadour” was Grandpa Francois’ firm favourite.
“Papa adores it. It’s made in Rocamadour, the place you want to visit. It’s located in the Lot Department, thirty kilometers from Puy D’Arnac. This afternoon, we’ll go there.”
“I’ll come with you”, the old man said. “First we’ll stop at Beaulieu so I can leave the helmet at the museum.”
He would brook no argument and Monique let me understand this. Obviously her father was a powerful figure who could not be gainsaid. It was all the same for me, it would be more interesting with him along. I’d taken a liking to him, and I couldn’t get the thought out of my mind that he had something very important to tell me. I observed him carefully as he chewed away, and only then discovered that he looked like my grandfather, Luka. The eyes were different, the hair – likewise, but the skin of his face, his oval features, his nose and most of all the big ears were the same. Yes, ears in old age are all the same – incredibly long, with dangling soft lobes and inevitable hair sticking out of the ear-hole.
My Grandfather passed away aged ninety-two, tired, and in my view, bored with life. He hadn’t lain down one day. He’d told my father beforehand to leave the room, so he wouldn’t see how he died. He was calm, his face was clear, so that for a long time Dad couldn’t believe that he hadn’t played some trick. I will never forget my grandfather’s ears. It seemed to me that he was listening to us as we fussed around his cooling body.
For dessert there was pudding and pears – softened pears picked the previous year by no one but Grandpa Francois, then preserved according to his own special method.
“The pear is a more delicate fruit than the apple, because it contains more water. It’s very important not to bruise its skin as you pick it.” He spoke with pride and then carefully took one out of the delicate porcelain fruit bowl. In spite of its exuberant brightly painted decoration, for me it looked like the old helmet in the cellar. And an unbidden memory came into my mind of one of my grandfather’s many fantastic stories from the First World War.
They’d been on the attack they’d charged ahead with sharp bayonets and twisted faces. The enemy began to retreat, but our lads didn’t stop. And as he charged towards death, my Grandfather Luka saw to one side of the field a man sitting with his back against the trunk of a single tree. He knew from the helmet that it was a French soldier. He was wounded and was dying. The tree was a pear tree. The boughs were weighed down with fruit… “So big and juicy that when I saw them I just wanted to eat!”, my Grandfather said. Some guy trotted up beside him, some Kolyo from the Belogradchik village of Giorgich, who also looked at the enemy soldier. And instead of continuing ahead, this Kolyo decided to go right up to the Frenchman. My Grandfather stopped to see what would happen. He thought Kolyo would finish off the soldier – one, he was an enemy, two – to put him out of his misery. But something different happened. The Bulgarian took the helmet off the wounded man who looked pleadingly and quietly whispered something. “Ey right now he’ll smash his head with his rifle butt”, my Grandfather told himself. But Kolyo left his gun on the ground and in front of his comrade’s astonished gaze, began to pick pears and fill the helmet of the man who was dying close by. My Grandfather couldn’t believe his eyes. What was this madman doing? Instead of fighting he’d set to picking pears. Was he that hungry? True the food was bad and there wasn’t enough – but right now? But Kolyo filled up the helmet, put it onto the dying man’s lap and gave him a friendly pat on the shoulder…”Eat!”, he told him and then picked up his gun, shouted out “Hurrah!” and rushed onward. Grandfather Luka instinctively followed him, but for a long time he couldn’t make sense of it. When that evening before lights out, he asked Kolyo why he’d done it, the man from Giorgich answered: “Ey well this guy, if he’s going to die anyway, he shouldn’t die hungry!” Kolyo died three days later. A shell cut him in half. “He didn’t feel anything, poor sod! That Kolyo – how could I forget him!” Grandfather Luka finished his story. As to what happened to the Frenchman, he never found out.
Grandpa Francois’ pears were really tasty and I ate two, just to please him. I saw how delighted he was when I ate the fruit that he’d so lovingly cared for. And then Monique began to clear the table and we two sat on two benches in the chimney nook to drink cognac. I’d never seen such a big fireplace. The hearth was more like a miniature room where probably a whole brood could gather to warm their bones in the winter.
“Let’s go and lie down!” said Grandpa Francois at one point.
He stood up and set off without worrying about what Monique and I would do. Before leaving the room, he turned back to Monique and said: “At half past three, we’ll set off for Beaulieu and then for Rocamadour!”
She nodded helplessly and when we were on our own she observed: “Nothing can interfere with his afternoon nap. It’s all to do with his trade.”
After the Second World War, instead of taking advantage of the privileges due to a participant of the Resistance, Grandpa Francois again became a bricklayer – as he had been before the war. This is what he knew best and damaged France needed squadrons of builders. Was there anywhere that the then young Francois hadn’t laid bricks and rendered? But however difficult the site, whatever the weather, always after they’d eaten lunch, the builders would take a nap wherever they could – even if it was only for ten minutes. This habit stayed with him all his life.
“You go and have a lie-down,” said Monique. “There’s quite some time till half past three.”
“Aren’t we going to see Nicole’s studio?” I asked.
Monique was sorry she’d forgotten, wiped her hands, then fixed her short chestnut hair with the tips of her fingers and led me towards the studio. As I followed her down the long wide corridor towards the other house, and then up the spiral stairs to the attic, I was enchanted by the refined taste with which Monique had decorated the place. Even the smallest vase with its dried flowers, pictures, tapestries, rugs and candle holders in the many wall niches, everything was in the right place and gave the space a sense of comfort and elegance. Clearly Nicole’s talent hadn’t come from no-where.
The studio was unusually large, lit by vast skylights in the roof. There was the inevitable easel and beside it a wide work table, a mass of jars, and paint tubes, as well as of course dozens of brushes in clay unglazed pots. On the walls was pinned just a part of Nicole’s work – posters, photographs and other pictures. On a small table lay a closed laptop under a hanging lamp with a wide metal shade. Otherwise it was clean and furnished with taste, as though Monique had planned it. And that turned out to be the case. As Nicole spent most of the year in Toulouse, only her mother entered the studio to tidy up after her and dust.
“Sometimes I’m tempted to paint but I don’t have the courage. It’s too late to start isn’t it?” sighed Monique.
I answered it’s never too late for anything, without wanting to stoke up vain hopes in this kindly woman. She was approaching sixty but had a youthful face, which radiated goodness. This was down to her smile, which produced sweet dimples in her cheeks. Monique was petite with short hair and this made her look younger.
“Now you can go to your room,” she said at last.
I decided to follow her advice. I didn’t have anything else to do for the two hours that remained before our setting out for Rocamadour. Clearly Monique wanted to rest as well. Of course she was tired from all the housework. She’d excelled herself as a real hostess without any ancillary help – this was quite an achievement. We men really don’t understand how keeping a home together is such exhausting and unappreciated work – cleaning, cooking and everything else that’s never acknowledged.
It crossed my mind to take a walk around the village, but I quickly thought better of it. There wasn’t all that much to see – apart from the gothic church on the hill, beside which was a well-ordered neat graveyard. There under a smooth gravestone of red granite lay Grandpa Francois’ wife. Immediately on her arrival the previous evening, Nicole picked some camellias and we went to pay our respects at her grandmother’s grave, as she’d planned weeks earlier. Even as we drove the car, Nicole confided that this was her only reason for coming to Puy D’Arnac. Oh, and because of me so I wouldn’t miss one of the most beautiful corners of France. But Nicole didn’t stay with me. She entrusted me to her mother and grandfather and soon left for the neighbouring little town of Martel to meet a friend she hadn’t seen in years.
The other notable site in the village was the War Memorial in the central square with its inevitable French flag and Gallic cockerel. Under the shade of its proud stone the children of the fatherland took their eternal rest. I could not be unmoved by the excellent upkeep of the memorial with the fresh flowers laid on its steps. I didn’t want to imagine the state of our War Memorials.
I remember that in the town of my birth, in the sixties, there was a war memorial to French pilots and officers killed during the First World War. As a child, I used to walk past it every day on my way to school. What impressed me most were the strange non-Bulgarian names cut into the black marble. They sounded like those from films with Jean Marais and Louis de Funès without my making the connection. Later I learnt that the monument had been moved to the museum courtyard because they were going to erect a panel built tower block in its place.
No, I wasn’t going for a walk. I would go back to Grandpa Francois’ old room where I had been installed would simply wait till half past three. I was hardly going to be able to relax and drift into an afternoon snooze. With its belle époque furnishings and decor, its smell of lavender and old wood, it had more the air of an ethnographic museum.
In Nicole’s studio you’d feel a real urge to pick up a brush and paint your cares away. I shared this thought with Monique and she sighed as though she felt guilty that she didn’t use it for its proper purpose but only cleaned and tidied. Just as we left I noticed a small icon of the Madonna and child, hanging just by the door. I examined it closely and realized it followed the tradition of the Eastern Orthodox School. You could see the sharp breast of the Madonna, on whose teat there was a drop of milk, and baby Jesus looked at her with mouth open, ready to suck at any minute.
Monique explained: “It’s a copy from some church in Italy. Nicole copied it. She especially liked the greedy face of the Christ child.
And she was right. I would ask her for the details the very next day, on the road as we drove back to Toulouse. Wasn’t this why I had come?
My name is Luka Kamenov and less than a month ago I became forty-five, Aries, obstinate to the point of stupidity – for those of you who are interested in the zodiac. Thanks to obstinacy and a little luck I came to be here, in Puy D’Arnac, so I could lie down in Grandpa Francois’ old bedroom, as though I’d gone back to Maupassant’s time, and quiver in anticipation that at last I was going to see her. I mention luck because if it hadn’t been for Tsvetan Stoyanov – my fellow countryman, childhood-friend and barrack comrade, who had emigrated to France all of fourteen years ago, to Toulouse to be precise – I wouldn’t have been introduced to Nicole – his daughter’s friend – and I wouldn’t now be twenty kilometers away from her. And obstinacy, because I’ve always been that way – whatever I decide, I follow it to the end, regardless of any danger. Once I set off, there’s no stopping me. A real Aries!
And I’d decided on something, which can be scarcely credited. Anyone would say I’d lost my marbles – that hoiking myself right out of Bulgaria, in pursuit of her, some mystery figure, was scarcely fitting behavior for a man of my age and social position. But life is a bewildering and unpredictable journey towards death, which sadly does not depend on us a great deal, so that I simply followed life’s beckoning finger with the clear understanding that at least I had to take care to not get hurt and to pass the time relatively pleasantly.
I work as an illustrator for a publishing house – and it’s a money-spinner as it publishes occult literature. I compose the graphic design for the covers, I even sometimes format the pages when there’s a rush, and that happens often as occult books fly off the shelves and we hurry to meet demand. People are mad about them. Perhaps because during the long years of socialism there was no access to such books, or maybe that’s just the way of human beings – to get excited by the secret, the inexplicable, the mystical, the paranormal, to be forever digging deeper and deeper, until they reach the void and eventually admit that there is no other cure for fear of death apart from strong faith in God. It sounds familiar, even a cliché, but for me at least, an ordinary artist, it is so. Probably things are a lot too simple for our complicated minds, or as my aforementioned Grandfather Luka used to say: “The world runs on whatever we think and whoever thinks about it doesn’t see it.” Proverb!
I’m married and I’m not divorced, but I don’t live with my wife. That’s how things stacked up. For years we’ve been apart – and that’s my fault. She’s in Austria with my sixteen-year old son Kamen. Evgenia, that’s my wife’s name, plays the harp, an unusual and difficult instrument, but she has its place, which suits her and she even earns reasonably good money. In Bulgaria there’s a fashion for chalga* and there’s no money in tasteful music, but that’s another subject on which even I won’t waste words. I’ll just say this: that everything starts with the mentality of my compatriots. It’s easier to be simple, cunning and rude. The larger parts of the books we publish are chalga, but just don’t tell my bosses.
I mentioned that I came to France because of her, but don’t think that I’m keeping you in suspense as to who she is, just to pretend to be interesting. It’s not at all easy for me to do this. And I still don’t know how to explain the things that happen. First of all everything started a long time ago (I hadn’t met Evgenia yet) and over the years it happened so rarely that I paid it no mind. But look, however somehow ordinary the apparition has been lately – she has begun to possess me more and more and I had to undertake something. (Didn’t I tell you, that this sounds crazy?) France was the best place where I could come and look for her, and even she herself gave the right sign. But not so fast! Perhaps I should go back the very beginning, twenty-seven years ago, in Nessebur, where everything started.
I was a second year conscript. I was stationed in Burgas, in the construction squad, and we were on duty during the day. Absolute idiocy – we guarded a corridor in which there was a so-called secret section. This was a room with bars instead of a door, sealed with cord and plasticine. Altogether unbelievable stupidity, but we four soldiers had to line up for two hours with empty guns and high hopes of imminent discharge.
There was me and my fellow townsman Tsvetan Stoyanov, expelled from the Pleven reserve officer school for anti-socialist activity, Bogdan Russanov from Sliven and Liubomir Velev from Nessebur, and we all called him Liubek. Let’s be clear, to similar building squads were consigned “unpromising” lads – from bad backgrounds or offences committed in their previous regiment. Only Liubek had been sent to our barracks in Burgas as a result of connections. His father was head of the Fish Board and had supplied the officers with turbot, and they’d shown their gratitude by transferring his son to lighter duties. So it fell out that Liubek was close to Nessebur and could jump over to see his folks whenever the opportunity arose.
He often took Tsvetan and me – Bogdan would hurry to get to his hometown Sliven – but we were a long way from our Danube town and preferred the seaside to the “Blue Rocks”. After all we were water-people. Our excitement, when we first saw Nessebur, was understandable. It would be an understatement to say I fell in love. I didn’t know then that on this precise spot I was going to meet her. But more about that – later.
Liubek was an amazing guy. He was descended from Macedonian Bulgarians who had immigrated to the south Black Sea coast after the same war in which Grandpa Francois’ guardian-uncle had taken part. There are all kinds of men, but if there were a recognized manly kite-mark Liubek would be it. It wasn’t enough that he was handsome and charming, but he was bright with a great sense of humour. He had thick black hair he was well built, with fair skin and enchanting smile. His lively olive eyes were framed by incredibly long lashes through which vivid sparks flickered when he laughed. In a word, Liubek was an Adonis. His conversation was fascinating and artistic, emotional and completely lacking in spite. Girls swooned over him and he frequently cashed in on their excitement. He was an involuntary womanizer and he’d happily embroil himself in all kinds of affairs, which he would tell us about for hours in the barracks. Tsvetan was skeptical, and seemed somehow irritated, so he preferred to read his thick medical books – he’d got a place to study medicine – but Bogdan and I listened to Liubek’s adventures open mouthed.
At Easter we were granted three days leave. I decided that the trip all the way to North West Bulgaria wasn’t worth the trouble (Tsvetan however went) and I accepted Liubek’s invitation to stay with him in Nessebur with a light heart. We had a wonderful time, looked after by his mother, and on the Saturday night going on to Sunday we even went to church, for which we later paid the price of three days confinement. (We were in the Comsomol and the atheist Communist powers-that-be didn’t allow Comsomol members to attend church.)
The Church was called The Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary and was full of people – mostly Greeks who had come especially for the holiday. I didn’t know what attracted them especially to Nessebur but later found out that according to one legend, the founders of Messembria as it was once called were immigrants from Megara. In spite of the press I managed to light my candle from that of the priest who was leading the service. At that exact moment I spotted the icon of the Madonna and child, in front of which everyone was crowding for reasons which were then unknown to me.
Following the Orthodox tradition candles lit in the church, have to be taken, still lit, back home, but since my home was far away, I took the initiative, went with my guttering taper to the sea shore and there on a small rock, I stuck it on to one of its sharp ledges. Then I backed up the beach, so I could watch how it burnt. I was on my own and sad, that I wasn’t with those close to me, but I was filled with a strange feeling of hope and my heart was light. The icon was imprinted on my consciousness and most of all the face of the Madonna. There was something odd about it, but even then I didn’t know what.
When the candle burnt down and went out, I decided to return to the churchyard and look for Liubek. It was then that I heard a woman’s voice, or rather whisper. I turned abruptly, then I looked in every direction – there wasn’t anyone near me. The only sound was the monotonous noise of the waves. “I’m imagining things,” I said to myself, but look the whisper came again.
“It’s time!” I heard someone’s voice outside the bedroom door.
Monique? I scratched my head and rubbed my eyes then I got up, dressed quickly, picked up my camera and quietly left the bedroom. In the corridor I saw no sign of her. I listened – nothing. I looked at my watch – it wasn’t yet three o’clock. Why had Monique called me so early? Probably Grandpa Francois had already got up and was now waiting for me in the living room of the other house to drink coffee together. I started out in that direction, but suddenly I realized that the phrase had been in Bulgarian. What, had I been dreaming? How could that be? I mean I hadn’t fallen asleep had I? It’s true I had been carried away with memories, gone back years in time, there, in Nessebur, when she…
I didn’t manage to reason it out, as at the end of the corridor a silhouette appeared. At the same time the door opposite mine opened and in its frame stood Grandpa Francois. For a second I was distracted and when I again turned my eyes in the direction of the silhouette, it was already gone. The logical explanation was that it was Monique come to wake her father.
“You’re up already?” said the old man and signed to me to go on ahead. I obeyed.
At the end of the corridor was a large hall, which led to the kitchen, dining room and veranda. To the left was the door out to the outside stone stairway, beside which grew the afore-mentioned enormous blooming camellia. On the entrance hall walls hung lots of family photographs, framed in thin black and brown.
Before leaving, Grandpa Francois stopped and pointed at one of these. It was an elegant daguerreotype, a real work of art. It was the portrait of husband and wife. From the clothes, I guessed that the picture was from the nineteen twenties, and from her bright watery eyes, I recognized the woman as Grandpa Francois’ mother.
“That’s the uncle with the helmet,” he informed me.
I stared. The man was thin, with a sparse red moustache, wide forehead and prominent Adam’s apple. He was shorter than the woman next to him and had a tortured look. Clearly this was Grandpa Francois’ second father, already visibly ill, most probably from Tuberculosis. My Grandfather Luka’s generation had called it the yellow visitor – a very naïve even banal designation for a disease that stained an era with its bloody spittle.
“I remember him well. I was eleven years old when he passed away. Tuberculosis!” sighed Grandpa Francois. “After the war lots of people died from it.”
I nodded sympathetically, without taking my eyes from the portrait.
“How awful!” he continued.” To survive the front by a miracle, just to die only five years later, and from an illness. Fate!”
And then Grandpa Francois told the story of how the man in the portrait had been saved. I listened and couldn’t believe my ears. But this was my Grandfather Luka’s story, just from the point of view of the guardian-uncle. Because the soldier, breathing his last, pinned to the pear tree was he. He was waiting to die, stabbed in the chest, bidding farewell top the world and all that was good when his eyes lit upon a Bulgarian soldier.
“The helmet you saw in the cellar…your bloke filled it with pears and put it in my uncle’s lap. Those juicy pears gave him strength and life and so he hung on long enough for those who came to gather up the wounded…”
This incredible coincidence sent shivers through my body. What was this fluke occurrence? Who would believe it? It was easy to say – irony of fate – but how could it be explained? It went against every law of probability, but there’d be scarcely any point in finding a rational explanation for what had happened. But it was fact. The man from Giorgich village, this simple hearted Kolyo had saved the life of the guardian-uncle, my grandfather Luka had been a witness and had told me the story, from which only the soulless old helmet survived; and Grandpa Francois – the only other living soul, aware of the amazing rescue. The circle was closed.
“When Mother told me how my second father was saved, I was still too young to understand what had happened. It sounded to me like a fairy story.”
“Absolutely!” I agreed.
“And what happened later to that Bulgarian? I wonder if he survived the war.”
“He was killed three days later,” I replied without thinking.
“How do you know?” snapped Grandpa Francois.
“Well, I’m just assuming. It was war after all.”
“Ey, yes…” The old man didn’t carry on. Then he shook his head and walked to the front door.
Once he was down beside the camellia, he stopped and said: “Now you understand why I like pears.”
Poor Grandpa Francois, I felt an impulse to kiss the dear man. Instead, I stretched up and sniffed at one of the bushes blossoming buds. I wouldn’t say that camellias have goodness knows what aroma.
Monique greeted us with a smile and ready coffee. Only now did I remember. Whose was that silhouette in the corridor?
2. The sword in the cliff face
While Grandpa Francois was leaving the helmet in the Beaulieu museum, Monique showed me the notable sites of the medieval town. She’d arranged with her father beforehand that we’d be waiting by the riverside walk. I still didn’t know what sights awaited me.
We started out, of course, from the centre, from the Romanesque church in the old Bridol Square. Monique gave me chapter and verse on the church’s history – its construction, begun in the 12th century, its name dedicated to St Catherine, whose relics were preserved somewhere in its foundations (so it was presumed) and most of all its stunning south doorway where we were now standing. With genuine amazement, I looked at the sculptural relief, carved out above the two enormous wooden doors, divided by a tall pillar – a titan with a skinny body, scrawny arms and head turned exhausted to the right. The scene above him on the so called tympanum was a representation of the Last Judgement, with Christ at the centre, sitting on a throne in his glory, and stretching out his hands in victory over the monsters and the damned. Above him reared an enormous cross and at his either side sat the four evangelists, wrapped up in their conversations. I took several photographs of the tympanum and Monique carried on: “This is the biggest carving of the Last Judgement in central France. There’s something similar in Carnac but it’s smaller and less awe inspiring.”
It was the first time I had seen such detailed vivid stone carving. I’ve looked at different scenes from the Last Judgement in our churches and monasteries, but they are always painted and always suffused with a storybook naivety – more amusing than terrifying. Here the dimensions and the realistic detail, punctiliously carved into the stone, evoked both the veneration and the strong feeling of joy that was the lot of the tiny dead human waiting below. The Church, particularly the Catholic Church, has always relied on fear.
It was really cold inside and we walked quickly round the church, the largest in the Corrèze Department. I stopped longest in front of the Madonna of Beaulieu – a wooden statue of the Virgin and child, plated in silver. I examined it closely, particularly the dark uncovered face. It reminded me of something similar. I felt thrilled by an unbidden memory of the silhouette in the corridor. No, I ought to have asked Monique if she’d come to her father’s house, while I was lying in the bedroom!
“This lamp here,” Monique pointed to a glass display case beside her. “It’s from Byzantium. It was brought here right back in 1130 when they started building the church.
I nodded my head, putting on a surprised expression. Byzantium! Wasn’t it because of her, we became and remain Orthodox Christians.
“And these are the hands of Saint Felicity and Saint Emilian,” Monique continued.
The limbs in question were also plated in silver, but the names of their one-time owners meant nothing to me. In the world there are so many saints whose relics are scattered in a thousand places. I’m always amazed at humanity’s innate need for division, dissection and dismemberment. I’m sure it’s some unconscious reflection of the separation of cells in our organisms.
Once outside and again in front of the Virgin, whose statue this time stood in the square, I interrupted Monique’s flow as in real Tour-guide fashion she was explaining how on the Virgin Mary holiday (15 August) people has festooned her hands with bunches of grapes so the wine wouldn’t spoil… I asked her: “Did you come into your father’s house this afternoon?”
Monique looked surprised at my question, she ran her hand through her short hair a few times, probably to help her click from the past into the present and she replied: “I haven’t been there since last night. Why do you ask?”
“That’s all really. I just thought I saw you…”
I didn’t say any more and at that moment there was a rumble. Fine redeeming raindrops showered our heads, the statue in front of us and all around it.
“Let’s get a move on!” Monique urged. “I’m sure Papa is already waiting for us>”
We quickened our pace down the old narrow street, with the grandiose name “Republic”, whose gothic houses with their thick walls and dark doorways returned me to a time way before the guillotine. “I wonder whether it was here they sharpened its blade,” passed through my mind later but I couldn’t ask Monique as we quickly joined another street. This led to the Chapel of the Penitents, which stood on the very bank of the river. That’s where we were to meet Grandpa Francois.
On the way the thunder increased and Monique was able to point out only one of the alleys, named tunefully “Patata” which means “And so on”. This was the place where all the gossip of the old town originated and spread, including inevitably many dirty tales about Madam Pompadour, Napoleon, Josephine and so on. For me gossip is the most refined and malicious product of human imagination, often greeted enthusiastically by most people, especially if the subject deserves it. Where would the European Enlightenment be without it? If there were no gossip, there’d be no newspapers today.
When we got to the chapel, it was raining harder and we sheltered under the eaves of a neighbouring house. This was a two-story building with a large protruding balcony, standing five or six metres from the Dordogne and I reckoned that the old port had once been here. However Monique informed me that it had been further down, where there was now a narrow path with benches. The bank was shored up with a stone quay, where you could see moorings- mostly for rowing boats, but more rarely for little ships. The River Dordogne had been the main trade route towards Bordeaux and the Gironde, which carried mostly wooden material for the production of wine barrels. As a major producer, France was dedicated to its wine.
In a little while, Grandpa Francois appeared at the end of the street. Monique spotted him, called out and he started towards us. He was in no rush he stepped slowly over the wet cobblestones and visibly enjoyed the rain running through his hair. He even happily licked the drops that reached his lips.
“Papa, you’ll be soaked through!” His daughter met him with a hot rebuke.
The old man didn’t answer her. He grinned like a child, happy that he had been up to some harmless mischief and didn’t resist when Monique rubbed his ginger hair with her hankie.
“Aren’t we starting out for Rocamadour?” he asked innocently.
“Wait for the rain to stop.”
“Rubbish! Now’s the time! This rain could be my last…”
“You’re talking rubbish, Papa! Durandal’s not going to run away.”
“Well, what if Roland rises from the dead and comes to take it away?” the old man laughed.
Monique understood my look of inquiry: “Durandal – that’s the name of the sword of Sir Roland. It’s stuck into the cliff above the old church. You’ll see it.”
“That’s also where you’ll find the black Madonna of St Amadadour. It’s very beautiful, ye-e-es!” added Grandpa Francois and began whistling, holding out his hands beyond the eaves, palms turned up towards the sky.
The mention of the Madonna reminded me of why I’d come to France. Yes I had to see her! I had to convince myself that I was on the right path, that I shouldn’t stop looking for her, until at last she appears to me in all her glory and transports me away with her. It would have been quite premature if the silhouette in the corridor had been hers. Perhaps she was giving me a sign or perhaps my desire to meet her was stronger than reality…
“This rain’s not going to stop soon. It’s best we set off!” Grandpa Francois lost patience.
And so he immediately started off down the street and we could do nothing except follow. The old man continued to whistle – some French folk song – and to collect water in his palms. Behind our backs, the Dordogne still flowed and rose thanks to the careless splashing of raindrops on its surface.
I mentioned that my wife Evgenia and I are separated, but I didn’t specify the true reason. I kept it back; I wanted to present myself as a typical contemporary hero – tired, solitary and intelligent, even pretending to appear likeable. But nothing could be further from the truth!
It’s true that I said it was my fault, that I was the reason she left me – but I said that to appear somehow more chivalrous. Anyone else in Evgenia’s shoes would have abandoned me a lot earlier than she did, because I’m completely unbearable. That’s the truth. Driven by my own limitless egoism, I’m committing folly after folly, furtive depravities, while on top of everything else – I admit even more sickeningly – I find excuses. My three favourite words are: I, me and my, and my lunacy has no bounds. I’m reclusive and repressed, I can be silent for days on end, especially when I’m in a sulk, but, when it came to defending myself to Evgenia, I talked to kingdom come. And I always dreamt up arguments. Jenny often told me that I was shameless and she was right. But the worst of it was that after each and every one of my idiocies, I would blame, torment and castigate myself, begging for forgiveness sometimes even with tears in my eyes, I would play out some banal melodrama, but feel a special thrill at my devious simulation, knowing that the very next day I’d commit some even bigger depravity, to sweeten it afterwards with yet another fit of remorse.
But Evgenia left me for another reason. She’d long got used to my carrying on, my rudeness and brutal egoism, she’d even grown to accept my apathy towards my son – I don’t remember ever giving him a hug, still less a kiss, but what knocked her off balance most and scared her half to death was my madness. Yes my quiet madness, my passion for the occult and paranormal, which in the beginning she took for eccentricity and which even she shared to some extent. Of course, anyone can be interested and excited to a greater or lesser extent by hidden and inexplicable things in their life, but if they devote themselves exclusively to something supernatural, just like me, those closest to them will immediately feel worried. The secret madness of the fanatic is stronger than the fury of a fool. And when you completely prioritize your faith and your mission over ordinary life, when you get to the point where nothing else interests you and the everyday begins to appear like a meaningless false mirage, then the worry felt by your partner turns to fear, and her instincts for self preservation drives her to look for some solution, the easiest being flight. Because the moment I told Evgenia that she had started to appear to me again, my long-suffering wife, packed her bags, took our son and left me. Later, thank God, she found work in Austria and this was some compensation for the years spent with me. Does she love me? I don’t think so. I think rather that she is enjoying a respite from my madness. The strangest aspect of the situation is that I don’t feel any regrets; I don’t even miss her or Kamen. Why does he need a father like me?
Something else makes my situation more complex and contradictory – no one except Evgenia has ever suspected what goes on in my head, what I believe or what I am searching for. I am sufficiently secretive, watchful, prudent and set in my ways to know how to conceal my madness and pursue my goal. Anyone reading this, who thinks I’m an ordinary madman, will be mistaken. And I know why: my faith knows no bounds but my actions are humane. Up till now I have not harmed anyone and when I say I have subjected Evgenia to depravity, this is because I have high moral standards. (I mean I’m an artist after all!) They are no higher than my egoism, but what would you call the ascetic monk who turns his back on “the world and its works” to live on bread and water in the Athos waste? He isn’t like the Muslim fundamentalist sacrificing his life in order to kill the innocent for the sake of his faith! You can’t generalize with philistine surety that both are mad. Yes I am mad, but what about Alexander (called “the Great”) and why did people follow him, follow Tamburlaine (also the Great), follow Ivan the Terrible, Big Brother, follow Napoleon, the Emperor, follow Hitler the Führer, follow Stalin, the little Father – not to list any more; encyclopedias are filled with “great” personalities in whose wake millions have followed with the only purpose being to kill. I at least don’t force anyone to follow me. I’m not so naïve as to not know the answer and how simple it is, but so what? What else is left to me except laughter, scorn and faith? Oh and effort! Ey, to some I am mad (to Evgenia for sure!) but to others perhaps I’m not. At least I’ve killed no one and haven’t driven anyone else to do so, neither in person nor in my name.
I lied when I said I didn’t miss Evgenia and Kamen. It hurts but my pain is special, the pain of a solitary man who has decided to pay any price in following his madness until at the very end he either finds what he is looking for or is finally certified. If I am fated to meet her, I am sure I will return to my wife and son, but let’s not hurry with predictions so as not to repent later. And I’m exceptionally good at that!
When we got to Rocamadour, the rain had long stopped. The sky had cleared and the March sun warmed the stepped fortified settlement, built at the top of the sheer cliffs rising from a bend in the Alzou River, a tributary of the Dordogne. As I said, Rocamadour is in the Lot department, which borders on Corrèze. This part of France is notable for its historic sites – churches, fortresses and medieval castles. They call it “fairytale”, with views that take your breath away. My breath was stopped, when I looked up at the giddy vertical cliffs and, as if inscribed in them, the smooth walls of fortifications and houses, which rose higher than fifty metres. The little town was built on the left side of the extraordinary small peninsula, cut out by the sharp bend of the river. It loops like the Yantra river round Turnovo. In fact there were many similarities, but in this world, towns and settlements like people often resemble one another.
The three of us had already started on the long and steep stone stairs, which led to the church of the Black Madonna and Durandal, the sword stuck in the cliff. The steps were deeply worn and hollowed at the centre by the passage of millions of pilgrims, coming here over hundreds of years, to pray, to repent and most of all – to seek help from the Blessed Virgin Mary.
Monique explained how most of these had climbed on their knees with bent backs and bowed heads but with hearts full of faith and hope. They’d come from every corner of the country – and even from other parts of Europe – driven by the expectation that the Madonna would grant them the strength to cope with every kind of trouble, mishap or calamity.
“Mother also climbed on her knees, when she was pregnant,” Monique began but her father interrupted her.
“She made me crawl all the way too. Afterwards, I couldn’t bend my knees for a week, but the Madonna heard our prayers and we got you as a reward!”
After this observation, we continued. We climbed slowly and silently but not on our knees. Two or three times I stopped to take pictures and gasp in wonder at the stonework of the original masons. Incredible! They didn’t deviate by one millimetre and you couldn’t put a razor blade between the stone blocks that made up the walls. Grandpa Francois greeted my excitement with pride. Wasn’t he a stonemason too?
Half way up Monique surprised me with a question: “Luka, how do you know about the Black Madonna and why do you want to see her?”
She caught me unprepared. I knew very well why I was there, but nothing in the world would have got me to spit out my secret. And I found it not at all easy. It would be easier to lie, to tell her some plausible variant, tied up to my job. And this is what I did.
“I work for a publishing house which is getting together a book about Black Madonnas in Europe. You know I’m an artist and I have to design the cover. There’s a lot about the Rocamadour Madonna in the text so I decided it wouldn’t be a bad idea to see it in site and form my own impression. I thought of my friend Tsvetan who lives in Toulouse, I called him up… The rest you know.”
I sounded convincing and I think that the pair of them believed me.
“In Bulgaria do you have any Black Madonnas?” It was Grandpa Francois’ turn to ask a question.
“No, we’re Eastern Orthodox and our tradition is icon painting. We paint the Virgin Mary as an icon but we don’t make sculptures.”
“Ey, the important thing is that you respect the Mother of God,” was the old man’s reply.
Respect! I was almost ready to take offence. It was on the tip of my tongue to tell him that we worship Her and surely love Her a lot more than you do! I bit my tongue. What did this old man know about our feelings towards the Mother of God, to say nothing of my own?
Monique caught my mood and interjected: “Papa, the Blessed Virgin means the same to all Christians.” And a moment later she almost shouted: “Here it is – Durandal!” And she pointed to the cliff face above us.
We were thirty metres from “St Michael’s Plateau”, the main terrace in front of the church, but from here we could see something like a metal cross sticking out of the grey rock. This was the sword hilt, beyond which a small part of the blade could be seen. Durandal had been thrust deep exactly opposite the church door and was awaiting, just like King Arthur’s sword, Excalibur, some new hero to pull it out of the jagged rock.
When we reached the terrace beneath the sword, we sat on the benches by the parapet to rest. Grandpa Francois’ staying power amazed me. He was so old, yet he was scarcely out of breath. Probably he was still supported by the memory of his onetime ascent on his knees.
Now I was at last able to take a close, uninterrupted look at Durandal. It was the most common-or-garden replica of a medieval sword, with a long hilt, ending in a massive ball. Nothing extraordinary – just a symbol, a reminder of a legend. I didn’t know a lot about Sir Roland. I’d read about his heroic death in the Pyrenees, but today was the first time I’d heard the name of his weapon. And what was it doing here, a hundred kilometers from Roncevaux – scene of Charlemagne’s tragic campaign led by his nephew, Roland?
I asked Monique and it was as if this was just what she was waiting for: “Oh, The story of Durandal is long and beautiful. At the end of The Song of Roland….
….they sang of the last hours of this noble fearless warrior. After his chivalrous, high born companions had been killed by the Moors (by the Basques – according to historical fact) Roland in his grief could already foresee his moment of doom. His fatal mistake had been that through pride and vainglory, he had not listened to his comrades’ advice and blown his mighty magical horn, which he had taken long ago from the giant Yutmun, and called on Charlemagne for help before it was too late. But the horn reverberated so strongly that it could be heard at least thirty kilometers away – there was no way Charlemagne wouldn’t have heard it. And he did hear it but it was already too late.
And so, cast down by grief, Roland was left alone to mourn and weep over his fallen commanders. For a long time he sobbed over their bodies, he even swooned from sorrow, but when he came to his senses and realized that he would die, Roland turned to the Virgin for help – to give him the strength to break his sword Durandal, so it wouldn’t fall into the hands of unbelievers. Thrice Roland struck it against the hard rocks thereabout, struck, struck, but in vain. Durandal rang, sparked, cut the rocks, but remained unscathed – neither scratch nor nick in its polished iron blade. And then Roland turned to his sword and before smiting the dark rocks one last time he began to sing its praises, how thanks to its strength the two of them had vanquished kingdoms, countries and peoples…
“By the way Roland mentions Bulgaria,” Monique added. (I didn’t know.)
The year was 778, the day 15th August, the most important Festival of the Virgin Mary (the date is no coincidence). Disheartened and helpless Roland gathered his last strength to hurl his sword Durandal and then went to breathe his last beneath a pine tree, where shortly the archangels Michael and Gabriel appeared to take Roland to Heaven.
“That’s the end of the battle of Roncevaux Pass,” Monique concluded her story.
“And the sword?” I asked.
“Durandal flew up into the sky, flew, flew and in the end thrust itself into the rock in front of us.”
“Legend!” added Grandpa Francois.
“Yes, a legend! But isn’t it beautiful?” cried his daughter.
I couldn’t gainsay her. Furthermore, I even declared that one day I would definitely read The Song of Roland.
The mention of the date made me think about the period of Charlemagne. I remember from history that he and our Khan Krum the Terrible lived at one and the same time, they’d even died in the same year – 814: Charles on the 28th of January and Krum on the 13th of April. Pure coincidence! (Here I want to complain about my depressingly tedious tendency to memorize dates, and always to calculate who has lived for how many years. I hate myself for this but I don’t stop doing it. Another of my even more lamentable and absolutely stupid habits is to count each and every slice as I cut fruit, vegetables, bread, meat, ready for cooking. Naturally I didn’t keep these two weaknesses from Evgenia. Now I’d admit I regret not doing that.)
Again from history I remember that in 805, Charlemagne defeated the Avars, through which he indirectly and unwittingly helped Krum extend the borders of his realm. This is to say nothing of how similar was the fate of Charlemagne’s army, led by Roland, and that of the Byzantines led by the emperor Nikephoros himself. Both were caught in mountain passes – Roncevaux and Varbitsa, both were massacred to the last man, only that the Basques and Bulgarians were presented in a non-heroic light. Well, Roland according to the song went to Heaven, while Nikephoros according to Byzantine chroniclers had his head chopped off. He probably went to Heaven too – after all isn’t an Emperor God’s representative on Earth? Anyway, the same chroniclers fall over themselves to describe how Krum made a drinking cup out of Nikephoros’ skull and how he’d drunk from it to celebrate his victory. The story seems scarcely likely but the implication that Bulgarians were Barbarians is inescapable. And it’s true! At this time they still hadn’t been christened; that was brought about by Krum’s grandson, Boris-Michael the Baptist. So called history! By the way the story of the skull is not omitted in any world encyclopedia. You’ve got to wonder whether to be proud or ashamed of it. Just that my aforementioned Grandfather Luka who was a fierce simple peasant, would often enjoy telling me: “Sod history! It’s always written by the victors. Just look at how life is at the moment!” I wouldn’t say life at the moment is sparkling.
Of course, I didn’t share any of these last thoughts with Monique and her father. I hadn’t told the old man who had saved his uncle, so I was hardly going down these historical byways. Nevertheless I made the following pronouncement: “What a poetic legend!”
And only then did we enter the church.
* Contemporary pop-folk music, a synonym of any cheap and vulgar cultural product.