Zachary Karabashliev is the twice winner of the Helikon award for best new writing in Bulgarian. His first novel 18% Grey is a roller coaster road novel shot with black humour. In his latest work, A Short History of the Aeroplane, he captures moments in motion, revelations on mundane journeys, extraordinary encounters that encapsulate the emigrant experience of rootless self questioning, guilt and loss.
From A Short History of the Aeroplane published in Bulgarian by Ciela 2009
Translated by Christopher Buxton
It’s spring. A dark grey car has turned off a narrow country lane next to a group of dry thistles. Inside, in the passenger seat there’s a woman of middling age and tired beauty , who’s fixing her hair and waiting for someone. He opens the door, out of breath, an old camera in his hand, he squeezes himself behind the wheel, turns and leaves the camera on the back seat, he pulls the safety belt across his chest, his hand’s on the key, from the key-ring dangles a little Eifel Tower. He doesn’t turn the key. He stares in front of him speechless and doesn’t start up the car.
“Did you manage to catch it?” She asks.
“To catch it?”
“To take its picture.”
“Because I didn’t take the picture.”
“Isn’t that why we stopped – so you could get closer to them and take the picture?”
“Such a long time since I’ve been out in the countryside.”
“We’re in the countryside.”
“Day in day out ,nothing except buildings and ugly buildings and cars and people…and people…and people…”
“You’ve not had a break in years.”
“That’s not the point here – really not…” He’s returning to nature deep in thought. His face is a screen on which blurred shadows of his emotions flicker.
“You’ve got to rest” she puts a hand on his knee. He starts as if in a trance:
“When I got out of the car…and outside it smelt of earth, of dry grass, of compost of…a country afternoon…”
“It is afternoon,” she interrupts. “In the country.”
“How many months is that foal, what do you think, eh?” He pays no attention to her words.
“I don’t know.”
“Not more than month and a half, two, eh? Three at the most?”
“With those slender legs.”
“The mare was beautiful!”
“The mare was walking ahead and he…followed her.”
“And you lifted the camera to snap them. I saw you from here.”
For the first time he turns towards her:
“He had a hard on!”
“It was standing out, that thing.” He speaks quickly and turns his head again to the front. She takes a deep breath.
“What do you mean and?”
“And ? So what?”
“So what? There was no-one else in the field, except the foal and his mother. Why did he have a hard on?”
“Wasn’t there anything else for you to look at?”
“We stopped so I could snap the mare and foal. It was so…pastoral.”
And why didn’t you take the picture?”
“Because the little fellow launched …that thingumy.”
“Animal. What was the big deal?”
“Big deal.? It stood out, his prick,” he flexed his arm from the elbow down…”Look this big.”
“One foal, One mare. And me, I felt moved …”
“And you felt moved?” she jumps in shock.
“No! no it didn’t happen to me …not that.”
“Thank the lord.”
“I felt …you know, kind of moved.”
“The foal can’t control erections…”
“I know! I know! I know!” he explodes. “I’m not talking about the foal, which can’t control its erection. I can’t either. And at the end of the day I’m sure horses have their Oedipus complexes. But why did I get embarrassed by that, that on a foal …its prick could stand up. Why didn’t I take the picture? Of the foal and his beautiful mother. Why did the picture become less pastoral, when the little horse showed he wasn’t a mule? Why at that very moment did I freak out over a baby prick over…some animal impulse, over….nature demonstrating its vigour? Why?”
“And why do you have to analyze everything?”
“It was beautiful! And real! And I got scared?” Suddenly he sobs. He reaches back to the back seat, tries to catch the camera, fails, rummages as if for something, wipes his tears with his forearm, his eyes fill up, he turns to the front again, controls his weeping, grabs the wheel in two hands and stares once more into the approaching dusk. Motionless, speechless, only his Adam’s apple hints that at any second something would tear his throat. She looks at his profile for some time, and then embraces him. His shoulders begin to shake in her lap. Maternally, she kisses his hair. Eyes closed, he seeks her face with his lips. She strokes his forehead and lets her head fall over his. He finds her lips, sucks on them, pulling her head with both hands. She jerks back. Excited, he presses on kissing her wherever he can. She pulls away back into her seat, her hair pressed against the window. He grabs her shoulders and tries to pull her towards him, but she stays rigid. He makes several more fruitless attempts. Then he begins to slow his breathing. He tries to measure his breaths and picture images that would cool his passion. He manages at last to swallow and his Adam’s apple softens. He returns to his seat, lets his head fall back, looks at the car’s grey ceiling. She lifts her chin, smoothes out her clothes, moves the mirror towards her with her hand, looks into it, and fixes her hair. Then she stretches across her lap, grips the key with the Eiffel tower dangling from its ring and turns it.
“We’re going,” she said. “We have to go.”
“We do, do we,” he closed his eyes.
“Don’t you fancy a crème caramel?”