Yordan Yovkov

Albena

 

On the road between the tavern and the Horozov mill a cart had stopped, ready to depart. In this cart two policemen were going to drive Albena to the town. From the side streets and yards women ran out to watch and as they had just jumped up from their work, they had to put on their scarves and even roll down their sleeves as they ran. They poured towards the cart joining all those who were in the mill. Never before had such a crowd of people gathered, as now in the days leading up to Easter Sunday. Up on the hill you could see Albena’s house, whence they were going to lead her. It was as if the murder that had taken place there had marked it out, for while the other houses were painted and shone clean with white walls and blue window frames, Albena’s house  looked neglected, spattered and dilapidated as if struck by lightning. The two policemen were there, one by the door, one by the window and Albena was inside.

Many things, many trivial occurrences which otherwise would not have been noticed or even remembered, were brought to mind and retold not for the first or second time. Everyone was anxious to show that they had guessed or sensed something. There were villagers who had been waiting their turn at the mill these past three-four days and so saw themselves as key witnesses of the event. Some of them recounted in the greatest detail how they’d sat one day and chatted about how the storks had arrived early; how afterwards they’d looked at the fields and asked what other year they’d been so green, so lush and overgrown  that they needed to set the animals loose to feed them up. Only after that – they said – as they watched how the women across the way were falling over themselves to whitewash and clean for Easter, they’d seen Albena walking in her yard. And from afar, they’d realised from her walk, her upright posture, how beautiful Albena was.

If the murder victim hadn’t been that Kutsar, it was doubtful if anyone would have remembered him. He was a messy, clumsy, simple man, who just worked and held his tongue. Tireless as a machine, his whole body covered in dust, he heaved the heavy sacks and though he was there every hour of every day, people met and passed him more as you would an object than a living man. From the start they talked about how astonished they were that a scarecrow like him could have got such a beautiful wife like Albena. “ Rosy apple: food for a pig” they said, but soon they stopped saying this, and ignored him. Even in the village they forgot about Kutsar. Now some remembered that in the last few days, out of the blue, this silent patient man had become somewhat hot and angry. As far as he was concerned he had only one boss – Nyagul, master of the mill. He obeyed his every command, even bowing his head like a slave. But there! – two or three days before the murder, whenever Nyagul said something to him from up above, Kutsar shook, muttered something and squinted up at him like a bull. It seemed that the very sight or sound of Nyagul drove him into a frenzy.

On the Wednesday of Holy Week, word spread that Kutsar had died, and as people asked what and how, a rumour spread that he’d been murdered. His child – his dear little kid, hardly two years old – and exactly this proved God's hand in this – had said that during the night his mother had thrown her apron over his father’s face, and a man had come in and started to fight him. He’d been wearing a coat – a coat with fur. That’s what the child had said and there was no need to say any more. Albena admitted it and confessed the truth. But who the man was – this she wouldn’t tell in spite of all the cajoling and threats.

From then on, the main witness for this affair was Daddy Vlasio. Out of work, a reveller  and scandalmonger, everyday he circled the tavern in front of the mill like a stray dog round a butcher’s shop. Any people drinking, Daddy Vlasio would ease up next to them, laugh at their jokes, sing with them and – a glass would appear for him on the table. Here in the tavern by the mill, he’d come across a bloke in a short  serge jacket with a fur collar. He was fair, handsome, his hat pushed back and his hair messed up. You could feel a kind of magic had ringed his head: others shouted, sang around him, but it was as if he was deaf – just stared at Albena as she walked in the yard and kept on asking about her. He stayed two days then was gone without trace.  And in the morning came the news of Kutsar’s murder.

He was a good lad and Daddy Vlasio had eaten and drunk with him, but still the truth will out. Following his testimony, they found out who this fellow with the furry jacket was and where he came from. Now the examining magistrate was interrogating him in the police station. He claimed not to know anything. Maybe. But soon he would have to take a deep breath and just like Albena spit out the truth.

“They’re coming!” someone shouted. “They’re bringing Albena!”

The crowd around the cart blinked; From above up the hill, Albena appeared and the two policemen followed. Everyone knew that as a final favour Albena had begged permission to wear what she wanted. That’s what had held her up. And look here she came dressed to the nines as they’d hardly ever seen her before.

“And why’s she all tarted up?” someone asked. “Is she going to a wedding or a scaffold?”

“She wants to look beautiful, even dangling on a rope.”

“Her bloody beauty!  It’s eaten her up…”

And Daddy Vlasio, who was also there, just waved his stick in the air. He sat and sat and still shook the stick.

“Hey Daddy Vlasio” – a girl laughed “Are you fighting devils? What do you think you’re whacking?”

“I’m whacking I am! I’m looking to see if I can reach and whack her when she passes, to give her head a good thump just to show her. Here’s her judgement, the harlot….

And Albena was already near. She walked ahead with the two policemen behind her. There wasn’t a single person who did not know Albena but as they saw her up close, everyone held their breath. Albena was the same Albena – just that she wasn’t laughing, her eyes weren’t flirting as before but were cast down under her thin brows. She was wearing a blue dress and a fox lined jacket. She was clasping her hands meekly to the front as though she was going to church. But when she found herself between the two walls of people and she lifted her eyes, that look which every man knew, had become even more beautiful because it was drawn in grief and those thin eyebrows and that white face – it was as if a calming binding spell had wafted from her. The woman was guilty but she was beautiful. The women who’d planned to heap abuse on her head fell silent and even Daddy Vlasio’s stick didn’t move.

And in that silence, in those few moments a miracle happened, even the hardest hearts were moved, sympathy and goodwill shone in the eyes of every man and woman.

“Well, well Albena, lass!” a female voice choked with tears. “What did you do Albena!”

“E-e-e, Albena”

Albena stopped.

“Auntie Dimka!” she cried. “I’m sorry!” Afterwards she turned to the other side. “Liutsa,  Tudora, Savka, forgive me. Goodbye Goodbye to all of you.”

So many were already crying But Albena continued to walk still calmly sad, still so beautiful.

“Forgive me!” she called to everyone. “I’m young.  I made a mistake. Forgive me.”

People choked and crowded towards her. The women poured over her the most and the policemen pushed them back. And then from somewhere at the back the angry trembling voice of Daddy Vlasio could be heard.

“Hold on boys!  Don’t give her up. What’s this village without Albena?”

Albena got to the cart, climbed up and while she was still standing up she shouted once more.

“I made a mistake.  Forgive me!”

Then she sat down and was silent. And so they brought out her child – the same child who’d given her away. And when they saw how she hugged and kissed him there was no-one who didn’t have tears in their eyes.

Suddenly the mill stopped.  The engine that beat like a heart non stop high up in the metal chimney suddenly stopped and fell quiet.  They thought that something had broken. But look out from the wide mill doors, the master of the mill, Nyagul, appeared, he passed between the wagons and horses and came towards them. “He’s probably stopped the mill so he can have a look-see,” said some.

But Nyagul forced his way through, got to the cart and as he put on his coat – a short serge coat with a fur collar – he jumped up and sat beside Albena. From everywhere you could hear the gasps: if Nyagul was having a laugh, they’d laugh but his face was as white as cloth.

“Down!” shouted the police sergeant and grabbed his shoulder. “Get down!”

“I won’t get down,” Nyagul spoke out.  “I killed Kutsar.”

“What, what did he say?” cried Marin Chokov, who was the Mayor’s representative. “Blimey! Can it be true?”

The sergeant waved his arm.

“Is he telling the truth?” he asked Albena.

Albena nodded her head and cried. Around the cart the fleshy mass of people heaved.  And as if at this moment, everyone’s eyes opened and they saw that Nyagul was fair and handsome, that his hat was pushed back and his hair was messy.  And he was wearing a serge jacket with a fur collar. Everything became as clear as day.

Everyone shouted and clamoured. Once the astonishment was over, sympathy for Albena disappeared in a second. The women shot her with looks full of hatred, from somewhere at the back Daddy Vlasio’s crutch jumped up. “Bitch!” he shouted. “You’ve destroyed yet another family!” A cloud darkened the faces of the men and though they said nothing to Albena, it was as if they couldn’t bear to see Nyagul sitting next to her. Everything had come so quickly, so unexpectedly that no-one knew what to think or say.

Marin Chokov, the mayor’s representative was amazed.

“It can’t be true” he murmured and looked flabbergasted. “How could Nyagul….we all know him, he’s an honest bloke, it’s impossible. Get down, get down Nyagul!”

“Drive on!” shouted the sergeant who’d climbed up on the cart.

But Chokov grabbed the horses’ reins.

“Sergeant please wait.  You can’t, the man’s got a wife, kids. Demir!” he called out to the village bigwig. “Go on run and get Nyagul’s wife. Quick as you can!”

“Drive on!” repeated the policeman.

“Where are you going, to the town?”

“No to the Police station, to the examining magistrate.”

And the cart quickly rolled away. A woman ran from the direction of the mill, thin, withered, old before her time. It was Nyagul’s wife. At first she listened without understanding anything they tried to tell her,  then she rushed after the cart, but she stopped, hurled herself to the ground, and covering her eyes, she burst into tears.

translation by Christopher Buxton

 

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