Extract from Wolfhunt (1986)
Salty Kalcho aka Trotsky
I’ll attempt to present the six of them separately and I’ll start with him because he was the reason behind this expedition to hunt wolves in this unsuitable weather.
Years ago Salty Kalcho had patented the job of watchman over the village vineyards. He wore a khaki military uniform, with a beret without a badge, pulled down to his eyebrows winter and summer, and he had a cartridge shoulder belt, white leggings and a musket on his shoulder. He got the uniform from soldiers at the frontier post, but the leggings and leather laces were home made. Ivan Shibelev had read somewhere, although rather late in the day, that Russia’s Revolutionary War Minister had been some guy called Trotsky and so called the uniformed watchman Trotsky.
We have some link with Trotsky’s family (my Grandmother and his wife were cousins) and we shared most of the farm work. We ploughed or harvested one of their fields and then one of ours and this collective work was called scratch-my-back. Trotsky had about five hectares, to be worked entirely by the women, because he had an allergy to farm labour. His wife and three daughters worked the field and cared for the animals, his land barely fed four mouths. Very rarely, at ploughing or harvest, Trotsky turned up to demonstrate his speed and willingness to work. People in the nearby fields straightened up from the dividing paths and watched him as he set off along the track as wide as half the field, in his beret and tunic buttoned to the top, with cartridge belt round his waist and musket on his shoulder, and began to dig or reap. He worked at such a pace that ten folk couldn’t catch up with him, without stopping a moment from morning to lunch, but in the afternoon, he threw his mattock or scythe away and left for the vineyard.
There he had a hut covered with a thick layer of straw, roomy and comfortable with a stove and a bed and out the front he’d erected a two story veranda. Our vineyards were side by side and when I went to pick cherries or grapes with Grandpa, I was always afraid of the watchman, crouched like a vulture on the top balcony of the veranda, ready to blow his whistle or shout if he saw anyone suspicious sneak into the vineyard, and the very veranda seemed to me to reach the sky. Grandpa often changed course to have a chat and so I had the luck top be invited first onto the lower balcony, and then to the upper floor of the veranda , from where you got a bird’s eye view of the vineyards and neighbouring two villages. Trotsky spent his happiest years on this veranda. For hours at his post with his eagle eyes he circled the vineyards from end to end, ready like Gioro Mikhaelov to sacrifice himself for our communal land which were sacred and inviolable according to the constitution. The only trespassers were lads, who were grazing their animals, and dogs, bearing in mind that in all his long years of service Trotsky hadn’t marked up one heroic act apart from the execution of a couple of ownerless dogs.
In his hours off he sat on the lower balcony, ate or slept in the cool breeze, bare headed in his shirt. Only here, far from people’s eyes, did he strip off his uniform and ammunition, but the moment someone’s dog barked, he was dressed again in a minute, even if this person was one of his daughters. Like a knight without his armour, it seemed that he lost confidence in his own strength of character if he appeared without uniform in front of anybody. Under his shirt, buttoned to his waist and greeny-yellow from sweat, you could see his chicken breasts, flabby, white and stretched like dough, his bare arms up to his sleeves were like match sticks and he looked as yellow as a tortoise that had lost its shell or a hedgehog without spikes.
Trotsky didn’t go home to eat, but every day his wife brought his lunch and supper to the hut. When his daughters grew up the eldest took over from her mother, and when she married, the next daughter Radka took her place. At that time our people started to make a road from the next village to ours. For four years they dug out stones from the quarry, brought them down, pounded them into gravel and every day in these years Radka crossed the two ditches at one and the same point. By the finishing of the road, she’d grown up, become a woman, and accordingly there came the day when Zhendo Ivanov the Bandit sent matchmakers to her father in his hut. Trotsky descended and met his guests on the ground. He heard them out, let out a long series of cigarette induced coughs and sent them away:
“I haven’t got a daughter for marrying.”
The farm had been in a desperate state for so long and now he thought that if Radka got married, total ruin would be inevitable.
Not only did Zhendo not smart at this categorical refusal, but he let it be known that he would go to set up the wedding with him personally. Everyone was surprised at his wanting to have Radka for a daughter-in-law at any price, even more so since her father enjoyed the title of being the laziest man in the village and she herself wasn’t much to write home about. A few days later, he visited the straw residence, in the dark as Trotsky had lit the stove and was getting ready for supper.
“I’ll get right down to it, neighbour,” Zhendo said, after they’d greeted each other and sat facing each other across the fire. Get cross if you like, but as you’ve got a daughter and me – a son, well it means we have to talk. You’re the seller, me the buyer. That’s how it was in the old days and that’s how it’ll be as long as there’s young folk who need to get married. If it suits you, you’ll give up your daughter, if it don’t suit, – well OK.” While he was saying this Zhendo took out of a bag a bottle of rakia, a hunk of cheese, some tomatoes and put them on the broad stump that served as a table. “Come on let’s wet our throats and have a proper talk. You know neighbour, I’ve not come to twist your arm, but to hear what you’ve got to say with my own ears. Whatever you decide – that’s how it’ll be.”
“Mate, I don’t know what to say to you. Kind of sudden…” Trotsky spluttered, lit a cigarette from the fire and fell silent.
Zhendo’s opening speech both flattered and embarrassed him, he’d expected to be talked down to and criticised, but got good will and respect instead so he really didn’t know what to say.
“You don’t have to make a decision right now. Tomorrow’s another day. Don’t imagine that if anyone came to ask for my son to be wed, I’d answer right away, yes or no. I’d give it some thought, I’d look at the pluses and minuses. To tell you the truth, neighbour, I could find another daughter-in-law. It’s not as though I’m an idiot or a complete pauper,” continued Zhendo as he lifted the bottle for the third time. “But I mean Koicho fancied Radka, he won’t think of anyone else, and that’s a fact. Well you’ll say I could easily get him over this attraction but you know he’s my only son, come on, I tell myself don’t smash his hopes. Then there’s Radka, girl in the right place, I’ve watched her, haven’t I, from when she was a child, working away in the field. Neighbour I do feel your pain. You’re telling yourself, look, if I send her off into some other home, I’ll lose a worker. It’s like a woman’s heart goes to the new home. But there’s a cure for this. We’ll be in-laws, we’ll look after each other. Up till now you’ve managed with a heap of people, now you’ll manage with us. Today on our plot, tomorrow on yours, as if we’re working shared land.
Trotsky looked into the fire, puffed his cigarette and listened carefully. When Zhendo offered him help with farm work, which meant that he could even carry on taking it easy on his veranda he reached out for the bottle on his own, drank and handed it to his guest.
“And lift a toast, cheers! I’m not against it, just that we’re not ready Zhendo, mate. We’re not ready. If this business is going to happen, it’ll happen earliest, in a year’s time. You don’t send a girl out with empty hands.”
“You’re fretting about dowry? Leave off mate! You reckon I’ve come to seek your daughter for dowry, neighbour? If I can’t dress a bride, my name better not be Zhendo. I don’t grudge anything for the kids and I’m not lusting after property. Six hectares, a house, cattle, They’re not going to the grave with me. I’ll leave everything to them, let them make as much trousseau as they want, let them enjoy life.”
Trotsky was impressed by the generosity of the future father-in-law and especially by his openness. Solitude had distanced him from people over the years of social maturity, he’d never been in conflict with anyone, so that for him everyone was well-meaning and honest. Now it was only left for him to express his final reservation and this from pure good manners, only to be expected in this situation from the dawn of time.
“Well it’s all very well, Zhendo, but I mean to say well…but Radka’s still young. She’s not yet eighteen.”
“Young! Come off it, mate,” said Zhendo. Didn’t our mothers get married at this same age. Like someone said, put a woman in an oil-drum, if her head pokes out she’s ready for that you- know-what. She’s like elastic.”
Trotsky couldn’t argue with this true life observation and giggled under his moustaches to back it up. Just one formality remained – to set the date of the wedding.
“St Dimitur’s Day,” said Zhendo. “Leave it any later and you’re into Advent, so you have to wait until after New Year. Once you’ve started something you want to finish it on time, not drag it out like a pig’s gut.”
And so it happened. Our folk were somewhat surprised by the unanimity of the fathers, since they were used to noisy bargaining over engagements, but what amazed them most was that they had given up on the vicious aristocratic habit of taking advantage of their children’s marriage. I’d come back to the village for a few days and so I was at the wedding. On Sunday Morning at the height of St Dimitur’s Day a bagpipe wailed at Trotsky’s and the local girls broke into a Horo in the yard. In the dark close bedroom, Radka’s bridesmaids dressed her in bridal clothes, anointed her with different oils and sang. Ivan Shibelev turned up as the hostage to announce the bridegroom’s imminent arrival to lead the bride to the church. In one hand he carried three honey loaves pierced with box twigs and in the other hand he gripped the legs of enormous cockerel. Round the neck of the cockerel hung an embroidered bag full of grain and dried fruit. The cockerel was the symbol of the bridegroom’s outstanding virility and the crammed bag stood for the future family’s prosperity. Ivan Shibelev was the hostage sent by the bridegroom. If he refused the bride, the hostage would have stay as the girl’s slave, in order to pay for his friend’s treachery. In fact the hostage played the role of Master of Ceremonies for the wedding and was in charge of what had to be done when. When the bride was finally dressed, he sent out word for the bridegroom to come. At the same time one of Zhendo’s people pulled his sleeve and whispered in his ear that there was no-one to officiate at the wedding. It was down to Stoyan Kralev, the Godfather to take care of the priest but Stoyan Kralev was a Communist and categorically refused to enter into any business relationship with the priest. Zhendo had taken responsibility for this and the previous evening he’d gone to the Priest’s house to remi8nd him of the wedding. The Priest said he knew what he had to do, but now Zhendo found him lying as motionless as a tree stump, he reckoned the old man had overdone the rakia the previous night, and he snapped at him from the door:
“Come on Father! There’s a wedding waiting for you, and you’re still flat out!”
“Flat out, oo-ooh, flat out and I can’t move. It’s got me in the small of my back and it’s like cutting me in two.”
“But you mean you can’t get up at all?
“Not at all! I can only move my eyes and hands. I can’t even get up to go to the loo, (sorry) the wife has to help me piss like a child.”
Titchy Titch (our folk hadn’t left the priest without a nickname) who knows what’s got into him, but he’s messing me about, thought Zhendo and boiled over again.
“Dead or alive, you’ve got to come to the church. Otherwise the wedding’ll be ruined, who’ll pay my expenses? If you can’t move we’ll carry you there. You’ll sing out a couple of words and that’ll do.”
“God’s my witness, son! It hurts even when I breathe. There’s no way I can get up, I mean, but you get to Vladimirovo and call up Father Tanass to conduct the service. We’d agreed with him that I was going to the festival, but you’ll tell him I’m ill so he can come and take my place.”
Zhendo threw himself into the carriage that he’d prepared for the bride, geed up his horses towards Vladimirovo and was there in just a quarter of an hour. There was a gathering in the village and another quarter of an hour passed before he found the priest’s house, another quarter of an hour, and they told him that the priest had gone off to manage a funeral in a neighbouring village and was coming back late in the afternoon. Zhendo’ head spun. He thought of going straight to the other village and taking the priest from the graveyard, but then when he thought that the wedding party was waiting for him not knowing what had happened, he whipped up the horses back down the road and returned. Godfather Stoyan Kralev and his wife were waiting for him in front of his house.
“Mate, what’s kept you so long, what’s happened to the priest?”
“God kill him!” said Zhendo as he jumped from the carriage. Last night his waist hurt and now he can’t move. I went to Vladimirovo to fetch Father Tanass , he’s gone to a burial, I hope he gets buried too. When you don’t need them, there are priests under your feet, and now you can’t find hide or hair of a single one.”
Stoyan let out an inconsiderate guffaw.
“Hey we’ll make the wedding soviet-style.”
“What do you mean soviet?”
“ Well just that, without a priest. In Soviet Russia they celebrate civil marriages without a priest.”
“You communists can get married without a priest, we can’t!” snapped Zhendo but then remembered he was talking to his Godfather and gave a sour smile. “You’ve got no worries, Godfather, so you can have a laugh, but I’ve got a whole stew boiling over.”
“If there’s no priest, we’ll put off the wedding.”
“Impossible, I’ll have them elope, I’m not waiting till the New Year, not going to pay the bill twice over.”
Zhendo led the horses away under the arch and Stoyan Kralev began to pace the yard. He regarded weddings like all Folk customs as Bourgeois relics and felt no sympathy at all for Zhendo. He’d wanted to turn down the job of Godfather , but he couldn’t provoke a confrontation with his wife. She raised a storm at home and declared that she’d be Godmother without him, but she wouldn’t be a laughing stock in the village. For as long as she remembered their family had stood Godfather to Zhendo’s, they were like family, and to change this close relationship would be like a blood insult. After a lengthy row, Stoyan Kralev had agreed to be Godfather, but on condition that he wouldn’t enter the church, to not compromise his principles. He would invent a pain in the kidneys and only turn up “for show” in the evening. His wife was supposed to get her brother to stand in for him at the church, but she didn’t dare warn him about her husband’s kidney failure in advance and the whole time stood guard lest her brother go to the festival at Vladimirovo or wander off somewhere else. When they realised that there wouldn’t be a priest at the ceremony, both of them breathed easier and could go home. But then Stoyan suddenly turned back and called Zhendo:
“Mate, just come over here. Something’s just popped into my head.”
Zhendo left the horses and approached.
“I see, Mate, this wedding has got you hot and bothered so I’m asking myself whether Ivan Shibelev couldn’t do the job in place of the priest.”
“Godfather!” said Zhendo, his face aflame. “You’ll forgive me but you’re just having a laugh. Ok. Ok but I didn’t expect you to go this far.”
Stoyan Kralev put a fatherly hand round his shoulder and whispered.
“I’m completely serious, Mate. Keep your hair on and just listen carefully to what I’m saying. Why do they call Ivan Shibelev a Jack-of-all-trades. Because he knows so many tricks. On top of everything else he’s an acolyte, a church bloke, he knows church stuff better than the priest. He’ll put on a stole, he’ll sing a couple of words, that’s all. You went to look for a priest in Vladimirovo, you didn’t find him, then you went to Mogilarovo and you found one there. It’s three villages away, our people haven’t seen his beard or heard his voice. And there aren’t many folk. They’ve all gone to the festival. There won’t be more than ten in the church, give or take, and if there are any more they’ll be Grannies.”
Zhendo realised that his Godfather looked at the situation from its funny side because he was a communist and had no respect for tradition, his tongue itched to tell him that communists were wasters, as he’d said to him so many times before, but now he was in a tight spot and patiently listened to his advice. And as he listened, it occurred to him that Ivan Shibelev was so cunning and sharp that he really could dash off a wedding instead of the priest.
“But who’ll sign the wedding certificate? If Father Encho doesn’t agree o sign, it’ll be as though the wedding never happened.”
“He’ll sign it. What’s he going to do?” said Stoyan Kralev and grabbed his back. “My kidneys are giving me real gip, well I’ll have to lie down like the priest. Every year, round this time, they get me. Look the priest could be in bed the whole year. Who’s going to marry us? He has to find a replacement.”
“Yes OK but Ivan Shibelev might not agree, and you can’t rely on him. Just look , he’s up to playing the fool…”
“Ivan Shibelev and the priest are as thick as thieves. What one says, the other does. If he lets the cat out of the bag, he’ll have to take the consequences.
Zhendo slid off his cap and scratched his head. Steam rose from his hair.
“Mate, I don’t know what to do Nor this nor that.”
He went into the house, and Stoyan Kralev sat down on the chopping log. He still hadn’t smoked his cigarette, and here was the hostage making his way towards the orchard, holding on to the cockerel festooned like a peacock with shiny posies, popcorn and various rattles. It looked like he’d been told why he was wanted and he entered into his role right away. He stopped in front of Stoyan Kralev, made the sign of the cross over him and spoke in an unctuous voice:
“God bless you, my son!”
“With God’s will, everything will be in order. I’m ready in one hour and waiting for you in the church.
As ever before any new daft endeavour, Ivan Shibelev was transported by enthusiasm, ran to his house, put a corn bin over the cockerel, grabbed whatever he needed, and went to see Father Encho.
I entered Radka’s house just as the bridegroom arrived. Zhendo lived only three doors away, but he’d decided to take the bride in a carriage. The horses were spruced up with platted tails and blue rosettes, and in spite of the heat, Koicho was dressed in a black fur coat and Astrakhan hat. Next to him, his uncle sat prim and proper with a red flag, next to the Godmother, sat her brother instead of Stoyan Kralev. In short, the bridegroom arrived with full pageantry as though he’d come through nine villages for his bride and in the middle of winter. They brought Radka out onto the porch so people could see her. As Stoyan Kralev had predicted there were only a few elderly neighbours there for the wedding, the youngsters had slipped off to the festival in Vladimirovo. Radka’s bridesmaids sang , and she wept, you could see how her whole body was shaking underneath the veil, and she could barely stop herself from sobbing out loud. Her mother, Auntie Gruda, scurried across the porch from one room to another, skinny with a big flattened nose, always moist like a slug, appearing about to catch her foot in her dress at any moment and fall on her nose. The bride’s tears also were written into the wedding scenario. A bride who doesn’t cry at the thought of leaving her parents, doesn’t feel any filial link to them, which means she can’t be seen as a good daughter, that’s why the Grannies were so pleased with Radka.
Bravo! Look how beautifully she cries!
Koicho got down from the carriage with his party – his uncle and Godparents – and Auntie Gruda and Trotsky came out to greet them. Trotsky appeared outside in full military uniform, like a soldier on leave without weapons, and proferred his hand for the bridegroom to kiss. As we will see later he had a valued guest and had spent the whole time with him in one room, entertaining and treating him. This guest was former Sergeant Major Chakov, about whom there will be more, later.
Koicho stood next to his wife-to-be, without bestowing any greeting, as though he found himself beside a tree, bristled under his coat and didn’t move. The inquisitive Grannies shoved themselves pretty much under his nose and tried to chat to him, but he just glanced at them through the whites of his eyes and held his tongue. Radka’s bridesmaids sang “Maiden’s farewell to her mother”, the bagpipe wailed as well, and Radka shook with sobbing. The Grannies began looking at each other and tut-tutting. There’d been a time when they too had wept beneath the veil, as was proper, but it appeared that Radka was overdoing it and irritating her husband.
“That’s enough, dear, you’ve cried for your father and mother, now stop!”
“Look your veil’s got all salty!”
“You’re going to the altar not the halter!”
But the more insistently the Grannies warned her to be quiet, the greater Radka’s grief and the more uncontrollable her sobbing became. It looked as though she’d fallen into hysterics and couldn’t control herself. Like they say, something caught my throat and I went up to give her a wedding present. Every holiday I brought her some trifle – a ring, a necklace or colourful scarf. We’d been classmates and gone to school together up to the fourth class. She’d spent two years in the first class, two years in the third, two years in the fourth, and so she’d finished her compulsory seven years of education in the primary school. In the summer our families worked together in the fields and Radka and I dug or reaped side by side. She was always asking me about the town, where she’d never been, how I was living there, what kind of people I met but what interested her most were the town mademoiselles. Like every village girl she felt an instinctive antagonism towards town women and believed that they lived in heavenly luxury, didn’t dirty their white gloved fingertips with any kind of work, but spent the whole day in dainty procession about the streets. However much I tried to change her naïve impression of town life, she couldn’t come to believe that even there people struggled, that the majority were poorer than her and worked for a crust. You’re only saying that because you’ve become a townie, she’d say. When you’ve cracked it, you’ll bring back some townie-doll, made up all powder and lipstick, with a bright parasol to keep her in the shade. And as she imagined how in reality this townie girl would set to clumsily dig or reap with a parasol in her hand, Radka would straighten up on the path and would simply roar with laughter from her very soul.
But now she was crying inconsolable under her veil and I decided to give her the simple brass bracelet I’d bought her from the town. Bridal presents are given in the late evening in her new house, but I’d decided to break with tradition, to somehow distract her from the hysteria she’d fallen into from as I thought over-excitement. I congratulated her on her wedding, I congratulated Koicho. Our houses were joined by just a fence, we’d grown up together and together we’d gone to school. And he like Radka got to the fourth class, then halted in front of secondary school as if it was a war-time barbed wire fence which he refused to attack. I told him to calm his bride, but he replied without looking at me:
“If she wants to cly, let her cly!”
He couldn’t pronounce the letter “r” and the inevitable consequence of this defect was his nickname Koicho Lala, In order to hide this problem he spoke little, as he tried to avoid the letter “r”. Some other time he’d have said “weep”, but now he was not himself. All the signs showed that he had no idea why he’d been placed in front of these people, dressed in a heavy coat and Astrakhan hat, who was this sniffling woman next to him, and what he was supposed to do next.
I took Radka’s hand and with some effort slipped the bracelet over her broad hand with its short work-hardened fingers. I told her I was glad she was marrying Koicho because from now on apart from being relatives, we’d be neighbours, I promised that I’d bring her an even better present for the Christmas holidays, I wished her happiness. She calmed down for a moment, like a dumbfounded child, she stopped crying, just her shoulders were shaking convulsively. Maybe because I saw her face in its ceremonial halo under he veil, but it seemed beautiful and kind, washed with tears, like the face of a weeping child. I said something else, she squeezed my hand, bent down, kissed it and cried again. It was left to Auntie Gruda to comfort her.
“Stop now, dear, stop!” she said and started crying herself. “Why are crying as if it’s a funeral?”
“Mu-u-u-m-u-my-y-y !”Radka cried shrilly and thrust her face into her shoulder. “Dearest Mummy!”
At this cry she seemed to calm herself, stood up straight and set out for the carriage on her own, with Koicho behind her. They climbed into the carriage, so did the godparents. When they’d passed through the gate, Koicho took a pistol out of his coat pocket, fired it and the horses broke into a gallop towards the church.
In a few minutes we youngsters had reached the church and the old folk straggled after us. The bride and bridegroom had already entered and were standing in the corner in front of a table. The doors to the altar were shut, the embroidered curtains were closed and this gave the church the look of an office still closed for visitors. In front of the altar, candles, as thick and long as flutes, burnt in the two sand filled boxes, and one candle was lit in the chandelier. The old folk who arrived one by one, said that the wedding ceremony would be carried out by the Mogilarovo priest, and any noise had them turning towards the door. But look the altar curtain split into two, rattled and opened. The altar doors opened and the Mogilarovo priest stepped though the doorway, looked at the young couple and stepped out towards them. From his walk one could tell he was a young man and that he’d come to celebrate the wedding as quickly as possible. His hair, in contrast with hair of most priests, was cut short, but his face was so overgrown with a thick black beard that only his nose could be seen. In one hand he held a thurible and in the other two candles – he lit them at the candle holder and quickly walked to the young couple. He slipped the ings from their fingers, gave hem a candle each and swung the thurible. Little wisps of smoke rose towards the ceiling, spreading the mournful sweet smell of incense and candle-wax. And then a tuneful falsetto reverberated through the empty echoing church, as though some Mexican had burst into song.
“Glory to God, with us always, for ever and ever Amen!”
This effeminate voice, so incompatible with the Orang-utan beard, sounded exotically seductive and at the same time somehow blasphemous. The old folk, accustomed for years to the feeble hoarse mumblings of Father Encho began to look at each other in amazement. But the priest won them over as soon as he sang the first prayer clearly and melodiously like a variant of a folk song. “Everlasting God, who brings together those who are divided, who blessed Isaac and Rebecca, and who made them heirs of your Covenant, you alone bless your servants Koicho and Radka, set them on the path of righteousness.” He picked up the two rings from the table, made the sign of the cross over the young couple and declared that God’s servant Koicho plighted his troth to God’s servant Radka, as Radka did to him, and he pushed the rings onto their fingers. After that he took them to the lectern , put crowns on their heads, and declared the couple were wed.
He was obviously working on the shortened version, because the old folk began to grumble that he hadn’t read a single lesson, not even the story of the Wedding at Canaan where young Jesus turned water into wine and marked the beginning of his miracles. He gave the young couple a sip of wine from the chalice, made them walk round the lectern three times and couldn’t think of anything else to do. But the grumbling of the old folk that he had rushed through the marriage sacrament with unwarranted haste, seemed to affect him, and instead of presenting the newly-weds for the congratulations of their nearest and dearest, he opened his prayer book and read another prayer. “God of our fathers, merciful God, take all these gathered here into your bosom in Your name and in the name Your dearly beloved Son, Jesus Christ! Drive from our hearts all weakness and doubt, every unclean, tormenting, subterranean, flaming, stinking, lustful, covetous, promiscuous spirit, every dirty dark hideous shameless demon. Almighty God drive out from your servants Koicho and Radka every diabolic influence, every poison, all voluptuousness, lust, promiscuity, adultery, recklessness, immodesty. Keep our hearts safe like theirs, God because you are strong, and that is why we glorify your name – in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Ghost, now and forever, Amen.”
Later when the village learnt the truth behind this scam, Ivan Shibelev told me in detail how everything had happened and I even remembered how he’d played some roles on the reading room stage in the same beard and Asiatic moustaches, thin and long like those of the Tsars of the first Bulgarian kingdom. He’d wanted to serve out the whole wedding service, but at one time he thought that the verger, Granddad Christaki had entered the church porch and stopped there. The Verger would have known from the previous day that Father Encho was indisposed and wouldn’t be holding Sunday Mass, so the ringing of the bell would have surprised him and he’d have come to see what was going on in the church, and as he hadn’t been fore-warned about the arrival of the Mogilarovo priest, whom he knew very well, he was bound to put a finger in the spokes. The old man who’d turned up on the porch was a completely different person and didn’t even enter the church, but Ivan Shibelev felt stressed and instead of singing out St Paul’s epistle to the Ephesians for example or the story from Mark’s gospel, he’d intoned the exorcism of unclean spirits.
In the evening lots of people returning from the festival made their way to the wedding feast and Zhendo’s house strained at the seams, as you could say. Some had popped in to “check out” the wedding, others to eat and drink after the festival. Zhendo had obviously forseen this wave of guests and straight after the wedding service had cut the throats of two lambs and a pig. He’d put a hundred litre barrel out in the yard, and another next to the porch steps and the guests, especially the drinkers, crowded around them, poured out cups and drank to the health of the newly-weds. Zhendo had spared no expense for this wedding and he wanted everyone to know. From time to time he came out to the guests in the yard, treated them, invited them to sit at table and shouted:
“Eat up, folks, eat up and drink, It’s only once I see my son wed!”
In one of the rooms were gathered the more immediate guests: the godparents, in-laws, relatives and of course former Sergeant Major Chakov. At the end of the table sat a bagpiper, cheeks red like hot steel from the bellows, next to him some woman sang with a screeching bleating voice, someone tried to sing along in harmony, others shouted and stood up to dance. The steamy window panes rattled from the thudding dancers, the two lamps winked and guttered through the steam and cigarette smoke. Several times Radka made an appearance with her veil swept round her shoulders, to dish out food or fill glasses. Mother-in-law, Auntie Kita, gently advised her as to what to put where and Radka obeyed with smooth instinctive movements. If someone said something to her, she looked at him as if astonished and left the room with just forced smile. And Zhendo, already heated and unbuttoned often lifted his glass and shouted as loud as his voice would allow:
“Be happy, Daddy!”
“Good health to you, Daddy!” answered Trotsky, who sat by the former Sergeant Major’s right knee, as if he was worried that anyone else’s conversation would irritate his guest.
At one point Zhendo took a six chamber revolver out of his pocket, pointed it at the ceiling and fired it three times. The women screamed, the bagpipe hiccoughed choked into silence, from the ceiling where three holes had appeared, a chunk of plaster fell down onto the dining table. Lots of faces were glued to the windows outside and quiet descended on the whole house. Zhendo, smiling retrieved the cartridges from the cylinder, and put them back into his pocket along with the revolver. An uncomfortable silence descended on the room. The women began to exchange meaningful glances and their faces reflected a guilty awareness that close by something was happening or would happen, something furtive and shameful, but as unavoidable as a ritual sacrifice that could only be hinted at by looks.
“What’s all this quiet, people? Hey, Veliko, blow up the bagpipe, so now me and the bride’s father can get up and bash the shoe leather!” cried Zhendo and kept replenishing the wine glasses.
The bagpipe player had gone outside, as had Ivan Shibelev who could always be relied upon for some entertainment. And so Trotsky decided that his opportunity had come at last. Throughout the whole evening, he’d been unreservedly devoted to his precious guest as though he’d forgotten that he’d come or his daughter’s wedding. The onset of silence jerked him out of his infatuation for the Sergeant Major or rather under the influence of this fixation he began a spirited account of his personal military Iliad. Everyone had known this Iliad for ages but now they gratefully directed their eyes towards him and prepared to listen. This solitary man who spent his life, squeezed into the mould of his soldier’s uniform and whose only companion was a half tamed dog, had only one solitary ace to play in front of people – his many years of eternal friendship with Sergeant Major Chakov, which lifted him to dizzying heights in his own estimation and, he believed, in the eyes of the whole village.
Following the end of his military career the former Sergeant Major lived in a neighbouring village, where his wife had inherited a small plot of land. Everything pointed to some unpleasantness which had forced him to end up in this bleak faraway village, because as he said himself life had given him the order: “About turn! Quick march!” Trotsky was the only one of his former soldiers living in this region, they’d met, recognised each other and from then on, the sergeant major was his guest for all the big holidays. He was over seventy, with a face as flattened as a hip flask, but very strong and energetic for his age. He walked with an measured purposeful step, as if he was marking time for a polka, only one thing, a nervous tick, undermined his military charm – he would fuse three fingers on his right hand together and spit on them several times. This spitting on his fingers might have been a habit, acquired from his maternal care for his soldiers. He wore a dark jacket of dyed military material, fawn trousers and high boots, which smelt of wax adulterated with the fragrance of home cooking and holiday celebration. He’d preserved his barracks habits, not only in his clothes and manners but also in is speech. When he began eating, he’d shout as if he were in the regimental canteen: “start!”, on getting up – “On your feet!”, setting out – “Quick March!”. You would not or could not find a nobler guest in the village. He was worth all the district’s big shots put together and none of the big holidays passed unmarked by his regal visits. Radka told me that for a whole week in advance her father would hold family rehearsals for his reception, he’d teach them how to stand to attention in front of him, how to answer him, how to comport themselves in a seemly fashion and not offend his dignity even with a look, no-one was to sit until he had sat down, what he should be treated with, and what gift he should receive on departure.
Trotsky choked from culpable generosity, tearing into his modest resources, like tearing living flesh from his body, only so he could he could prepare banquets for his idol to satisfy even the ravenous appetite of a Lucullus. However These celebrations were not confined to the tight family circle. Trotsky always invited his neighbours as he wanted witnesses to his triumph. From our side of the family, Grandad, Grandma and I were always invited. If Trotsky’s “ace” was the former sergeant major, Grandad’s ace was me. I could recite several poems from anthologies, Grandad was so proud of my talent that he would take me everywhere with him.
Everyone sat on the floor, only the mighty guest was raised up on a three legged stool in front of a chest specially laid out for him, that towered over our communal spread like a pulpit. From this pulpit his squashed face hung like the moon over people’s heads as he shone down his cold benevolence on them. No-one dared to smile, even in secret, when as if bewitched he spat on his fingers, because everyone thought that these monkey gestures were no flaw but a mark of nobility. They waited for him to be first to reach out to the food, and only then broke the bread. The sergeant major was no glutton and in spite of his host’s urging him to try everything, he measured his mouthfuls and sips of rakia and was very quick to cry “enough!” He wiped his mouth with his napkin and rose from his pulpit, to stand as motionless and inscrutable as the Dalai Lama. That was the moment Grandad, tapped me gently on the shoulder and I got up in front of the spread. It wasn’t difficult to guess the sergeant major’s literary preferences, and as early as our second meeting, I began to recite an extract of Vasov’s “Shipka” for him. The orders given by the Generals, the victory cries of the volunteers, the roar of the desperate fight, awakened his impoverished imagination, his nostrils quivered to the smell of gunpowder, his squashed face swelled with heroic feeling, and when I cried how every one of our lads desired “heroically against death to bare his chest and one more dead enemy to lay to rest” a noisy congratulation came from the sergeant major’s lips like a bullet from the muzzle of a gun: “Bravo young man!” The scales of his regal good will tilted towards me, he pulled one lev from his top pocket and he presented it to me, after first ordering me to stand to attention, salute, and shout “I thank you humbly!” He was delighted to see that with each time, I performed the drill better and better, and I noticed myself that I revelled more and more in the lev that he’d give me and so I honed my talent for recital even more keenly.
Trotsky sat legs crossed Turkish style at the boots of his God, tortured by envy and slave-like devotion; he looked up at him from down below and waited the moment to turn the spotlight on himself.
“But I remember the number of the musket” he said at the first opportune moment “Two thousand, eight ‘undred and ni’ty five.”
The sergeant major turned towards him, flattered by the lasting result of his educational activities that had established deep roots into the memories of his soldiers and had survived the test of time. Trotsky looked up at him with an apostolic flame in his eyes, and from this it seemed that the moment had come for him once more to repay his former commander with warm words for the care he had shown him in the barracks .In fact he laid out the tyranny of the sergeant major towards himself and his company only to show how this stunted man had beaten him as many times a day as he’d paraded in front of him, just to ensure that no-one was left in any doubt about his honour’s exceptional character. The worthy man stood inscrutable behind his squashed mask and from time to time, probably moved by the sweetest memories, he spat on the fingers of his right hand, as if with this ominous gesture he wished to clearly underline his undeniable contribution to the formation of Bulgarian character.
Trotsky started with how on the very first day the company’s loving mother had inspected the new recruits’ clothes and found lice on some men and had beaten them so hard that the bruises reached right up to their ugly mugs. Whether they’d been told to steam themselves or they didn’t want to, the next day the company mother found lice again on two soldiers one of whom was Trotsky. The sergeant major unbuckled his belt and flogged them in front of the assembled troops. They steamed themselves again, but just one louse needs hundred kettles. Our louse is fed for “home consumption”, put it through fire, you wouldn’t even singe it. Beating doesn’t stress it, cried the sergeant major, I mean just stand to attention and watch. I watch, and he takes the pests one by one out of my shirt and puts them in my mouth, right here omn my teeth. Chew! And I chew. I polished off ten.
Trotsky remembered the number of his musket and this number was engraved into his memory like the hieroglyphs on an ancient stone, thanks to the punishment which exceeded it. With the greatest delight mixed with a gloating masochism he recounted an epic beating delivered by the sergeant major during the second year of his stint. “That day I was on duty. The company had left the town for training on the firing range. At some time the corporal comes back and straight into the office to see our sergeant guest. There it is, no cartridges for the training. That morning our sergeant guest was busy with something, he gave me the keys to the armoury and told me to give out the blank cartridges to the company, but me, I forgot. Our sergeant guest gave the corporal the cartridges and then came at me blue to the gills, he looked at me and shook from head to heels. Private Statev, did I order you to hand out cartridges to the company? Yes that’ true, I say, but it just shot out of my head. Now he says, I’ll see if I can’t drum some wits back into your head. When he wasn’t angry he’d shout pet names at his men, turd, waster, dungface. If he called you Private you knew that nothing good was coming your way. He reaches out his left hand. I duck left and he hits me with his right.. Then again with a right, then with a left…my head shrieks like a bagpipe, I can hardly stand on my feet. I hide my face in my hands, spin like a top and him – attention! stand still! don’t move! At some point I decide to run through the dormitory to the square outside so he’d let it go. But he gets to the door before me and shuts it. Nowhere to go but run down the aisle between the beds and he chases me yelling: halt! I should have known to stop so I’d get off easier, because the guy’s shouting that if I don’t stop he’ll give yet another punishment for disobeying an order. The more I’m terrified, the angrier he gets. I’m at my wits end, I don’t stop but take to running across the beds. He meets me at one end so I jump onto the opposite row. Dust flies into the air and our sergeant guest and me played tag in this dust-cloud. At last I see my chance and jump out into the corridor. From there to skip down the stairs, and bang, he grabs me round the neck. He pushes his hand through my belt and drags me like a bundle along the corridor. I grab hold of the chest where we put the firewood. He drags me, I drag the chest along with the wood. He’s pulling me towards the stores to push me inside, the chest’s too wide, doesn’t fit through. Let go of the chest! I didn’t let go. He stamps on my fingers with his boot, I let go of the chest. He rolls me into the stores, locks the door and begins to beat me in any place he can find. There’s no-one from the company, no-one to call for help, no-one to hear me. This guy isn’t beating me just to hurt me but to kill me. I’m terrified and I squeeze under a shelf like a dog scoots under the barn when it’s in trouble. Our Sergeant guest pulls my legs. I hold onto the shelf, which collapses on top of me and smothers me with blankets, sheets, and boots, gaiters and all kinds of stored stuff. I’m suffocating, I can’t shout or get free. At last our sergeant guest pulls me out from one side. Stand up! Yes sir!. He’ll take pity, I think to myself, he’ll let me off ‘cos I was so near to suffocating. I struggle to my feet and wait for him to let me go, but him he says I’ve got to face new stuff. He slams me to the floor, pushes his knee into my back so I can’t move and starts off on one again. He digs his knee in hard, it’s like a knife cutting into me, I scream as far as my voice can hold out, and him: “Shut up! Don’t you dare mutter a word or I’ll tear out your tongue. If you’d obeyed my order and stood still, you’d have forgotten the beating by now. But you wanted to play hide-and-seek with me. Leave off the shelf, if you’d hidden up your mummy’s bum, I’d still have dragged you out of there and given you a spanking.” And so what happened happened….
Trotsky wasn’t able to get to the climax of his exciting story and had to cut it off just at the sergeant’s gynaecological ambitions. The door opened and two women entered the room. One was carrying a shirt or cloth in her outstretched hands, and the other – a lemonade bottle with a red ribbon tied round its neck. The pair stepped up to Trotsky, their faces fearful and guilty, and the one holding the lemonade bottle handed it over:
“Your good health, Daddy!”
Trotsky lifted the bottle to his lips, sucked deep, but the bottle whistled and released not a drop into his mouth. He shook it, sucked at it one more time but the bottle whistled empty once more. He turned its bottom towards his eyes, saw that it had a hole in it and laughed as he guessed that they’d played a trick on him. His wife let out a frantic wail, beat her forehead with her two hands and froze.
“What are you crying for, girl!” Trotsky grumbled and wanted to say something more, but the woman who’d given him the bottle, swallowed, closed her eyes and declared:
“Of course, she’ll cry! ‘Cos there ain’t no sweet rakia!”
Across the table an ominous silence ruled.
“You’re lying” Auntie Gruda shrieked again. “You want to bring disgrace on my daughter. You want to brand my home with shame!”
They showed her the shirt, she pushed it away, slipped through the crowd that had pressed into the room and went outside. Zhendo’s wife hurried after her. And so they carried the shirt to the godparents to confirm the bride’s dishonour. The Godmother looked at it and cast her eyes down but Stoyan Kralev waved his hand and turned his face to the wall in disgust. He’d arrived just before Trotsky began his barrack-room story, regarded the former sergeant major with undisguised contempt, and could not resist a damaging comment:
“Tsarist barracks! Any fool with stripes can abuse his men as much as he wants!”
Stoyan Kralev never let an opportunity slip to present fascist rule in a bad light and extol the superiority of the Soviet system, even though his fellow villagers were left cold and even poked fun at him. The German army had reached the Caucasus, the Supreme Command were predicting the middle of November as the final date for the capture of Stalingrad and no-one expected a reverse in the war. Even the village powers-that-be weren’t bothered by his propaganda, and on the contrary welcomed the chance to argue with him, to push him into a corner with incontrovertible facts and ridicule his political blindness. Stoyan Kralev stood up to them with his rolled up sleeves and carried on repeating that sooner or later the Germans would lose the war. His belief seemed so unshakable, when for everyone else the final result was so clear, that his opponents didn’t consider him a true communist, but a confused babbler who only knew how to babble one thing. And Stoyan Kralev “babbled” at any opportunity, and you could say he turned any life event into a lesson in favour of communism. This evening everyone was cast down by the clean bridal shirt, he was depressed too, but he remained true to himself. His position as Godfather compelled the parents-in-law to listen to him and he began to talk of the equal rights of women and men, established in one mighty land that was now fighting the forces of fascism. What had happened this evening could never happen there, there a girl could not have been so crushed. She had the right to go with whomever she pleased, to choose her comrade herself, and decide herself how she would live and with whom. In the end Stoyan Kralev reached the conclusion that traditions like this one with the bridal shirt had been thought up by the Bourgeoisie, to deprive women of their rights. When she labours in the field alongside her husband, cooks, cleans and looks after the kids, no-one asks her what’s bothering her, but when she falls in love with someone and he tricks her, then she’s bad and dirty. How do you know that the girl’s been with another man, perhaps this has happened by itself? – it has been known. Maybe the bridegroom (here Stoyan Kralev hesitated whether to continue or not), maybe the lad couldn’t manage the job properly, he is still young…”
“The job’s been done, Godfather, but not done just now,” said the woman who’d brought the sweet rakia bottle. “Let Auntie Donna tell him.”
Auntie Donna was the local midwife and it was her task to establish the bride’s virginity.
“It’s the truth!” she said and folded her hands across her stomach.
“Well so what if it’s the truth, so what? It’s OK to blacken the girl with this stuff? Old folk used to say – and you women should know it best – a woman’s honour isn’t under her skirt but in her head."
“We’ve carried out what we were asked to do,” said Auntie Donna with all the cold objectivity of a surgeon. “From here on in it’s up to the bridegroom and his parent to decide.”
The bridegroom and his mother weren’t in the room, but the lad’s father sat with lowered head and gazed at the empty glass in front of him. When he realised that everyone was staring at him, he waved his hand and this despairing gesture was so expressive that people understood it and their hearts filled with genuine sympathy for him. The whole village knew that he’d swallowed his pride and set out on his own to arrange the engagement with Trotsky, stepped round the traditional formalities, and only the nobility and generosity of his character had saved him from universal opprobrium and ridicule – he hadn’t wanted a dowry, not even a chest of clothes from his future daughter-in-law. And now she’s repaid him with this terrible shameful choice – either to accept her with her dishonour or to send her back after she’d come to his house. Everyone watched with bated breath to see how Zhendo would resolve this dilemma and as for Trotsky , it was as if he hadn’t fully grasped what had happened or he had understood so clearly and tragically that he was in no state to move or talk. He sat white as a sheet, only his eyes glanced nervously from one end of the table to the other, and his hand lay as if it had been amputated on the sergeant major’s knee. The sergeant major himself was gazing at the opposite wall and looked even more like the Dalai Lama. Only his right hand rose up to his mouth , true to its quirk in every situation, and the graveyard silence was broken by the spitting on his fingers: pyoo, pyoo, pyoo!
“That’s it!” Zhendo sighed at last. “Whenever you really want something, it doesn’t happen.”
The crowd outside squeezed through the door and filled every corner of the room. Everyone wanted to hear what else Zhendo would say, but he’d fallen silent.
“What’s done is done, friend!” Stoyan Kralev called out. You’ve got a daughter in law that’s good and hard working. Everything else is ignorance.”
“Godfather!” said Zhendo. “You’re always for Russia, talking as if you’d just got back from there yesterday. But let me tell you. Russia is Russia and us is us. People there can walk on their heads, not get married in church, eat all out of the same pot, and share their wives between them. That’s their business. We’re straightforward Bulgarians and we do things in the Bulgarian way.”
“Not Bulgarian but bourgeois..”
“I’m no bourgeois, nor communist either, but I do know a woman who goes to get married has to be pure. A woman who’s been jumped by another man is no good as a mother or a homemaker.”
“You’ll forgive me, friend, but you’re talking like a fool.”
“Well maybe I am a fool,” said Zhendo. “And you’ll forgive me, as you’re the godfather, but since you’re so clever, tell me this, if your wife came to you in tact and if she hadn’t been a virgin, would you have accepted her? Tell me that!”
Giggles spread through the crowd, Stoyan Kralev’s wife hid her eyes in embarrassment and he shrugged his shoulders: you can’t talk to a simpleton.
“There’s a simple solution for everything in this world,” said Auntie Donna, once the tumult subsided. “Whoever cooked the porridge has got to eat it right up. One and a half hectares and a cockerel on top.”
Whatever was said in the room was passed in a flash from mouth to mouth out on to the porch and from there into the yard, because even as far as the yard gates a unanimous outcry could be heard: wow, that’s the whole estate!
Zhendo neither backed nor rejected Auntie Donna’s idea with word or look. It seemed as though disappointment had so squashed any feeling, that he was indifferent to anything.
“It’s easy to hold a funeral with someone else’s cake, Donna!” someone shouted out. “As though your father would have given a foot of land for you if you’d been in Radka’s place! And why are you sticking your nose into other people’s business. Let Zhendo speak his mind.”
“Zhendo’s been burnt, he could make a mistake and later beat himself up,” said Auntie Donna. “He’s my aunt’s son, I’m not going to let him be messed about. If it doesn’t suit them, let them take her back. A woman’s reputation is worth more.”
Now attention shifted towards Trotsky. He was still sitting as white and silent as a corpse. His idol was silent too, gazing at the opposite wall, only occasionally spitting on the fingers of his right hand. Everyone fell silent and this ominous quiet lasted so long as to become unbearable. Then Auntie Gruda appeared. No-one saw how she’d got there, as though she’d crawled through people’s legs, in a torn dress, with her scarf fallen round her shoulders, with all the energy sucked out of her – pitiful. She stood next to her husband and spoke from bottomless despair.
“Give it up, husband, Give up whatever the in-laws want, damn the bloody land!”
She’d been to talk with her daughter in the next room and these words confirmed her dishonour. The crowd shot off a new volley of tuts and gasps. And so one of the evening’s questions had been answered. That left just two more. – which villager had seduced Radka, was he a bachelor or a married man (the whole village would scratch their heads over this question later) and would her father give the in-laws land and how much. Former sergeant major Chakov carefully removed Trotsky’s hand from his knee, barked “stand!” and got to his feet. People drew back on either side and made a path for him and he went outside. Zhendo clutched his forehead, got up and followed him out.
“Ey?” demanded Aunty Donna with the voice of a presiding judge, as she stood with her hands at her stomach.
Trotsky began making some signals with his hands. He’d been literally struck dumb but none of us knew that yet and many burst out laughing. He opened his mouth to say something, garbled noises came out of his mouth, and his eyes nearly popped out with the effort. At last he pointed a finger at Aunty Donna, picked up a spoon and began to scratch the table top with it.
“He wants to write,” suggested someone.
“I got it,” Aunty Donna popped out into the next room and in seconds reappeared with paper, pen and ink bottle. “Where’s Ivan Shibelev to do the writing?”
The hostage had disappeared somewhere and Trotsky reached out for the pen. Auntie Donna turned an empty tray upside down, put the paper on it and handed him the pen. He took a long time over the writing and his fingers were splashed with ink, but when he’d finished Aunty Donna examined the document.
“Write the day and the year!”
Trotsky added date and year, she handed the paper to her husband and he managed to read it out with help from the more literate. “I sign over to my daughter Ratka, fiveteen dekar field, Kalchu Stetef DimiturDay 1942.”
“They really rubbed in the salt” someone commented.
I reckon that his new nickname was born exactly at that moment, because by the very next day he was already called Salty Kalcho. That’s what I ought to call him from now on.
The blizzard had strengthened, and down in Hell it was raging. Salty Kalcho had lost his left glove on the way and pushed his hand alternately under the collar of his jacket and into his pocket. It’d not been ten minutes since he’d entered the wilderness and his feet had begun to freeze. If only the beaters turn up soon, so we can go home, no point in just gathering the cold for the sake of it, he thought and not for the first time on the way from the village he felt guilty for this stupid hunt. Why didn’t I drink Zhendo’s wine, God blast me! Was it going to stick in my throat and choke me? Everything started from that bottle, just that, out of the blue. As if it was the same bottle they gave me at Radka’s wedding. When I reached out for it, my fingers froze. Just take a sip I tell myself, folk are waiting, you’re meeting up with your comrades. Ok but my fingers can’t grip the bottle no matter what. My heart was thumping, I got so hot, not knowing what to say with my tongue stuck in my mouth. I thought I’d forgotten that business, but it’s caught like a thorn in my brain. So many times I’ve thought of that evening and everything that happened afterwards, that my heart hurts from grief. So many times I’ve thought of killing Zhendo or doing something that’ll bring him the same pain, but I always tell myself: no, I mustn’t. Even if I kill him the evil he did me will still remain. I’m not going to bring him down with me so the evil doubles. But it’s this thorn that for twenty years I couldn’t get out of my head. So many things I’ve forgotten from that time, good and bad but it’s this one thing I remember. I remember it as if it happened last night. And I’m still amazed at what a piece of work is human memory. Try to forget something bad, scrub your soul clean of it, and it sticks in your memory your whole life, like you’re thrice cursed. If a bloke didn’t have his memory he’d live like an angel in this world. Everything comes from it. Ivan Shibelev did the right thing in luring us into the wood. He’s a great guy, so cunning. I guess it means even he remembers that evening with the empty bottle. . And the others remember it, otherwise they wouldn’t have all jumped together into this blizzard. By jumping up they wanted to say burn the old stuff. What happened, happened – over and done with. That’s how it should be. We’re not going to the graveyard in a filthy shirt.
But while he was telling himself to forget the past, he thought of a similar blizzard that had buried his hut and almost smothered him. From the very evening of Radka’s wedding, he retired to his hut and lived there in complete isolation. Before that he seldom met people but now he’d lost his speech, he didn’t even want to meet his wife. The next day Aunty Gruda brought him food, but he mooed angrily and gave her to understand that she shouldn’t beat a path to the vineyard. He walked to the village once a week and at night time so as to avoid folk, he carried back a bag of bread, beans and potatoes so he could cook stew on his stove. The vineyard was deserted. There wasn’t a living soul nearby, and he remained alone and mute like an ancient hermit. He wanted to devote himself to complete union with nature, as he had done over preceding years, but a dark impenetrable emptiness had invaded his soul and he couldn’t recapture the former sense of life’s sweet secret harmony around him. He had gained a sixth sense for this, he could see, hear and feel how the vines, trees and grasses were growing, how they bloomed, bore fruit, died back and were born again. Not only by day but by night in his dreams he watched over the mystery of growth and knew that the dumb plants were living beings, divinely noble, the noblest beings in this world which grew, multiplied and died in uncomplaining silence, without questioning nature’s laws, without hurting anyone, without eating up their own fruit, motionless, drinking life from the depths of the earth, so they could give life to other living beings. He knew that people were laughing at him living like an outcast, but with every contact, he felt small and helpless faced by their snobbery and petty passion and so he hurried back to his lair. Solitude and inactivity gave him back his strength, balance and peace of mind, from the heights of his veranda the world appeared mighty and immeasurable, there was no strife, no quarrels, no enmity, there were no lies or dishonour. His only concern was for his uniform and this was not so much a concern as a necessity. Like a suit of armour the uniform hid his inability to adapt to life and it gave him a certain authority with people, even though it was an authority of the lowest rank. For the same reason he had raised up a nonentity like former Sergeant Major Chakov into a cult figure. The memories of his harsh barracks life and his personal dealings with Sergeant Major Chakov fed feelings of manliness, strength and physical endurance. And so he managed to create or at least imagine a harmonious if distant co-existence with people and the larger world.
He often dreamt of what was good and it often appeared like a cherry tree by the hut, festooned with blossom or fruit, stretching up towards the clear blue sky. A tiny white bird landed on the very top branch, opened its beak towards the heavens and began to sing, just that instead of bird song, the sound of bells spread across space, clear and tuneful as children’s voices. Usually he happened to be sitting on the veranda, every time he’d be astonished by the white bird and every time he’d discover that it was not her, but the leaves of the cherry tree which whispered in the breeze, and rustled against each other and sang like bells. And little by little he was transformed by the tinkling bells, and flew into the open, as airy and light as a spirit and saw how everything on the earth was under blissful enchantment. But evil, though he seldom dreamt of it, always appeared in the form of a monstrous harpy, the kind that he’d known as a child, an indescribable creature of terror, a combination of every predatory bird and beast, with an enormous mouth and sharp teeth hungry for blood, sometimes with a beak and wings. It would rear up in front of him, ready to hurl itself on to him, and it didn’t occur to him to get his musket and kill it, he would step backwards, fall to the bottom of some ravine, and evil would look down on him from a height and roar with human laughter. At that evening of the wedding when he learnt of his daughter’s disgrace, and they made him pay for it with land, evil had appeared in front of him, it had reared up facing him on the other side of the table. It crossed his mind that he didn’t dream it, that evil faced him in real form, ready to tear him to pieces, but that he wasn’t scared, not like he was in his dreams. He just wanted to ask it “why?”, he drew a breath into his lungs, opened his mouth, but he couldn’t pronounce the word. From that moment on this word crammed his mouth and still he was unable to pronounce it. Why had Radka been disgraced so young and green, why had Zhendo blackmailed him, why he’d been struck dumb? Why did God punish me with three curses at once, as if I had sinned? This question weighed on his heart like a rock, he wanted to shout it out with full force in front of the whole world but he couldn’t. Then one night at the beginning of December, a sudden swirling blizzard buried his hut, he broke through the roof and pulled himself free.
He returned home, he didn’t leave his yard the whole winter, and for the first time since he’d become the vineyard watchman, he threw himself into work around the place. The first few days, he shovelled snow from the cowshed, so it was piled further away from the animals, so it didn’t hurt them with its silent threat, and afterwards working around the yard became a habit. He cut wood, fed the chickens and beasts, he took special delight in taking care of the two oxen and the cow, they’d got thin and covered in urine stains. He combed them with a metal comb, stirred up their warm feed, got up in the night to feed them, and in three months he restored them to health. At night when they needed to be watered, Aunty Gruda or Mitka, the youngest daughter drove them to the well, because he didn’t want to appear in front of folk. He had to take off his soldier’s uniform, so as not to spoil it. First he took off his shoulder straps, a few days later, his belt, breeches, tunic and last of all his gaiters which were as white as snow. In their place he put on old clothes, saved from his bachelor days, so he looked like a hireling in his own house. Auntie Gruda found some serge material, Stoyan Kralev sewed him a pile of clothes without taking any measurements so Salty Kalcho could see the new year in as a civilian.
I hadn’t seen Radka since the wedding. Aunty Gruda came across her at the well or at the baker’s, but couldn’t hold her even a minute. I’m Ok, how else would I be, Radka would say and hurry away. In these short meetings, she never once looked her mother in the eyes and never said anything about herself. She’d become so thin of face and waist, that she could hardly carry the full water pales on her shoulders. Aunty Gruda would come home, in tears and tell her husband that things with Radka were not going well. He gave no sign of understanding what she was saying. He would turn aside and go out. But Aunty Gruda didn’t leave him in peace, she’d follow him declaiming:
“They’ll wear her out these folk, Kalcho, they’ll suck the breath from her body! You should see the eyes popping out of her head, she’s as skinny as a ghost, you should go there to fetch her and bring her home.”
Once when she was telling him these things, he grabbed her hand and pointed to the gate.
“Don’t shout!” Aunty Gruda spoke without thinking – then: “Oh God! I’m so mixed up. What do you want?”
“Boo-boo-boo al v-u-u!” he spluttered and started making various signs with his hands, but his eyes filled with tears.
“You want me to go?”
Aunty Gruda wrapped her shawl around her shoulders and left, while he went to the henhouse to get corn for the hens. He put a few cobs on a tray but before he could go back into the house, the church bell tolled. The sound reverberated from the barn wall and echoed into the distance, Salty Kalcho looked towards the church and saw a huge flock of pigeons flying high in the sky. They flew in broad circles above the village and at every turn their wings glinted in the sunset rays. Salty Kalcho took off his cap and wondered : “Who’s breathed their last – God forgive them whoever it was!” The bell tolled once more, he entered the house and began stripping the cobs. Outside on the porch he heard some kind of whimpering, the door opened slowly and on the threshold stood Aunty Gruda with her shawl in her hands.
“Kalcho, our child has gone! Radka’s dead, Kalcho!"
The sun had set when the pair of them entered Zhendo’s house. Weeping, Zhendo’s wife met them in the yard. She was alone in the house and didn’t dare approach the corpse. Zhendo wasn’t at home and the last few months Koicho had been a soldier.
Radka was lying on her side, with the mess of her tangled hair, in the corner of the room where she had crawled out of her bed in her painful death throes. Salty Kalcho approached, took her in his arms and instead of putting her on the bed, carried her to the door. The two women watched him in silence, and only after he’d kicked the door open and gone out into the yard, did Zhendo’s wife howl like a she-wolf:
“!n-law, why are you taking our bride, why turn her soul into a vampire?”
She was never yours, alive or dead, Salty Kalcho wanted to say this but couldn’t. Some bloke on a horse had blocked the gateway, silhouetted like a black monument by the glow of the sunset. Salty Kalcho pushed between the horse’s head and the gatepost. He wouldn’t even have noticed the man if he hadn’t called out
“What are you doing mate?”
Salty Kalcho paid no attention and set out down the street. When she saw her husband, Zhendo’s wife grabbed his leg and began to shout hysterically:
“They took her! They took her away! Took her back, so as to cast shame on our heads!”
Zhendo kicked her in the chest and rode his horse into the yard. Then he suddenly jumped to the ground, went back, took his wife’s hand and led her back towards the house. At this moment my Grandma who was carrying a bundle of firewood, heard the crying and jumped to the gate. “I saw Kalcho carrying a kid and Gruda walking behind him crying as if someone’s died “ she said later. “When I got close I couldn’t believe my eyes. Kalcho was carrying Radka like you carry a little child. Her face was hidden in his shoulder and her hair was unfastened and fell down to his waist. The day before, I’d been to Zhendo’s to give a tray back to them, but hoping to see Radka. After the smash up at the wedding, and their not going round, Gruda was always on at me to pop round to Radka, to keep an eye and hear what they were saying. Even if I didn’t go round theirs, you get to know everything, well we’re right next door, if someone sneezes round ours they hear it and if someone there so much as yawns we hear it. I looked in at Radka, she was lying down, rolled up under the blanket like a kitten, didn’t move, and didn’t speak. What’s up, darling, I ask and she just keeps looking away to one side and doesn’t turn. And that’s the way of it… “
Grannie dropped the wood on the ground and as she’d come out of the yard in a nightgown, she walked along with Aunty Gruda and they both howled in one voice. Still more old women joined them and added their voices. Salty Kalcho walked in front of them, cuddling his dead daughter as if she were alive, thin ice crackled under his heavy tread, the church bell tolled ominously over the quietened village. In the house the women lit the fire, filled the kettle and put it on the stove. The outsiders soon departed leaving Grannie and Aunty Gruda. When the water had warmed up, the two of them carried the dead girl in, placed her in the large tub and began to undress her. Her body had not paled or stiffened but had shrunk so she looked like a ten year old child. From her waist right down to her calves, she was splashed with gobbets of thick blackened blood, and the blood had soaked her nightshirt. Appalled, the two women looked at each other. And Grannie said:
“She’s had a miscarriage, poor darling… “
Aunty Gruda’s scream was so shrill and baleful that Grannie was scared and as she didn’t know what to do, she began to cross herself and beat her head with her fists. It was hardly right to remember the dead girl’s shocking and shameful past and Grannie chided herself for this profanity. For the whole time they washed the deceased, dressed her in clean clothes and took her into the front room, they didn’t exchange a single word. Still silent as if they just communicated with eye movements, they laid the dead girl on the couch, lifted her head onto a pillow and fixed a lighted candle into her crossed hands. It smelt of melting candle wax and dried basil and the secret breathless hush of death reigned over the room.
Leaving it to the women to sort out the deceased, Salty Kalcho went out into the yard and from there to the orchard. He wanted to go somewhere far away, and so he set out and walked late into the evening. It was coming up to the end of February and the winter was growing milder, during the day the sun shone and melted the snow and in the evening the puddles grew an ice skin. The night was blue tinted, cold and deathly forlorn, not a single lit window to be seen, not a sound to be heard. Salty Kalcho walked on and on with a lightness of step that he’d never felt before, as though his feet were not touching the ground, and that he was moving through the air as on bird’s wings. Someone grabbed his arm, pulled him back and so he saw Mitka, his youngest daughter, who was standing next to him and looking at him with tear filled eyes.
“Daddy, I’ve been calling you for so long! Mum says to come home. There’s no-one to watch sister.” She led him back and before entering the house, he looked at the barn door and said: “The cow’s going to calf soon. She’s always lying down and panting…”
They spent the whole night for the wake over the deceased, he on one side, Aunty Gruda on the other. Mitka fell asleep before midnight. The whole evening she’d dashed about looking after the animals, she’d gone to the well for water and to the carpenter’s to order a coffin and as soon as she sat by the fire she fell asleep. Aunty Gruda carried her to bed, covered her and returned to sit across from her husband. He’d become as yellow as parchment, was sitting on the three legged stool with his fingers on his knees, never moving, never taking his eyes off his dead daughter’s face. A whole hour passed in this fashion, Aunty Gruda was worried by his fixed stare and in order to distract him began to talk about work around the farm, she said it was time to sow onions and garlic, that the sheep would lamb soon and pens would have to be made for the ewes. He gave no sign with his hand or head that he heard or understood her and Aunty Gruda was scared that after he’d lost his speech at Radka’s wedding, her death would drive him out of his wits. She found the cigarettes and matches on the window shelf and handed them to him., she wanted to remove his eyes from his dead daughter, and so find out if he was still sane.
“Other times, you puff like a chimney, and now you’re not smoking. Light up! Come on light up husband!”
He turned his eyes towards her and now she could see his face, Aunty Gruda saw in his pupils a warm humble grief, not the cold desolation of madness. Her heart-ache eased, and when she saw him take a cigarette and light it, she went to sit by his knee, clasped it in her arms and cried.
“Don’t look at her like that!” she said through her tears. “Now it’s God’s turn to look after her. Her soul is clean, that’s why he’s taken her so young. Come on now and lie down, you’re tired.”
Aunty Gruda took him into the other room, put him to bed and by the time she’d covered him, he was already asleep. They woke him up the next afternoon, when they were setting out for the graveyard. The burial service was performed quickly and quietly, old Father Encho read the last rites in a hoarse voice And they lowered the coffin into the grave. That was when some of the women raised a high wail as was customary at the passing of the dead, and Aunty Gruda, left without voice or strength fell on the fresh dug earth. They lifted her to her feet, put her on to the oxcart which had brought the deceased and the small funeral group set out back towards the village. On the journey to the graveyard, Salty Kalcho fixed his gaze on the coffin, just as he had on his daughter’s face the night before, but now he fixed his eyes on the tracks made by the back wheels of the cart. His eyes followed the tracks’ twists and turns all the way home.
On the fourth day after the Radka’s funeral Aunty Gruda got him to dig a small patch for the summer garlic. Even with the sun, the earth was still cold and it could have waited but she wanted to engulf him with work. If he wasn’t doing anything he’d sit immobile, staring at one spot and not want to talk to anyone. He would take care of the animals around the yard as before, just that he needed to be reminded about everything. Now Aunty Gruda shoved the spade right into his hands, showed him where to dig and went back into the house. He went into the orchard, dropped the spade from his shoulder and stopped. He walked around in a complete circle, gazing at the earth, and again stood on the spot. And so all at once he felt that he was standing on the earth with all his weight, his nose sensed the smell of the just sprouting corn and smoke, he heard the myriad sounds from the village, he saw the fruit trees lifting their budding branches towards the heavens, thirsty for warmth and space, he saw the circuit, which he’d trodden that evening when he’d left his house, to go somewhere far away. He remembered as if he’d awoken from heavy sleep, , that he hadn’t walked anywhere then, but had circled for hours in this endless circle, like a horse, tied to a post, he remembered how Mitka had come to take him home, how the whole night he’d stared at his dead daughter’s face, without feeling pain or grief, how he’d buried her without throwing a handful of dirt on her coffin. How did this happen, he asked himself and realised that he’d lived these four days in some kind of serene world of forgetfulness, in which he’d looked at everything around him without thought or conscience. Tears burst relentless from his eyes and the question which had tortured him the previous months, sat on his heart again like a stone: “Why is God punishing me with this woe, am I to blame and what did I do to be blamed?”
After supper Aunty Gruda sent him to have a look at the cow. He entered the shed, lifted his lantern above his head and saw the cow lying on one side with swollen stomach and head thrown back. He fastened the lantern to the wall and as he stepped towards the cow, he saw that she was wet with sweat and the forefeet of the calf were sticking out. He knew that the head would show after the legs, he got to his knees and began slowly to pull the legs towards him. When the knees appeared, he realised he was pulling the hind legs and was frightened. The calf was coming out the wrong way, maybe it was already dead, and the cow too might die. He wondered what he should do, he didn’t think to call Aunty Gruda or any of the neighbours. The whole night passed.
The calf was born alive and healthy at daybreak, pink-red all over, it just had a white spot on its head. The cow got to its feet straight away and began licking it. Overcome by tension and tiredness, he sat down to rest on the hay bales and fell asleep. And he dreamt that he was sitting on the top deck of the veranda in the vineyard, and a white bird landed on the very top of blooming cherry tree and it began to sing, but instead of a song peels of bells spread through the air. As always and even now he was amazed to realise that it wasn’t the bird but the leaves of the tree, trembling in the wind, and rustling against each other that tinkled like bells and everywhere around was under a spell of joyous peace and plenty…
We saw each other in the autumn of ’47, when I came back to the village from military service. The campaign to set up collective farms was at its height. Like most young people, I was recruited into a propaganda group. Party Secretary Stoyan Kralev told me to agitate my family, friends and neighbours and I began with Salty Kalcho. Aunty Gruda was stooped over something in the orchard and I jumped over the fence to see her.
“My bloke’s started talking!” she said, after I’d greeted her.
“I knew that the man’s power of speech had returned, but I pretended that I was hearing this for the first time, just to give her the pleasure of telling the story. She was pulling out leeks, piling up the big tender sticks into little heaps, and I bent to help her. And she told me how one night she’d sent him to look at the cow. “He lit the lantern, went out and it got really late and I fell asleep. When I woke up, it was dawn, and no sign of him. I remembered I’d sent him to the barn, I ran over there, opened the door and what do I see? He’s lying on his back in the straw, with hands folded like a corpse. I jumped out of my wits. Kalcho, Kalcho, I cry out , ‘cos I’m scared of going up to him, and he jerks, wakes up, opens his eyes and shouts ‘We’ve got a calf!’ And from then on he’s been talking. There he is putting tiles on the shed roof ….”
He’d already seen me as I was talking to her and climbed down the ladder to meet me. He seemed a totally different person, and not because I was seeing him in civilian clothes for the first time. An astonishing change could be seen in his wrinkled tanned face, his eyes, his walk, as though along with his soldier’s uniform, he’d cast off that inability to cope with life, that driven him to live in solitary contemplation for years far away from people, and was now dedicated to caring for his property like every other villager. He wiped the red tile dust from his hands on to his trousers, we exchanged greetings and chatted about where we’d been these last four-five years since we’d last seen each other.
“I got down to replacing the tiles on the shed roof, ‘cos the other day, when the first rain fell, the sheep were lying in the wet and their wool got splashed in mud.”
“Well aren’t your sheep going to spend the winter in the community pens?”
I slipped this in sort of casually almost as a joke, just as an opening gambit for my agitation. He gave a look, the same look as everyone gave me from now on when I started to talk to them about becoming members of the new collective farm – a mixture of surprise and reproach, ridicule and condescension towards a man who’s just paddling in the sea. And not just with the look, they’d shout it out at the tops of their voices: you ain’t got no land, and even if you had you couldn’t earn a crust from it, that’s why you don’t care about others’ property. And Salty Kalcho would tell me this later, but now he didn’t suspect me of agitating him. Still he didn’t leave me in doubt.
“You pushing the Collective farm? Leave off mate, they’ve been dogging me for half a year. poke my nose out of the gate, they stick to you like glue and it’s go on, hand in your application to join the collective farm, that’s where you belong. Membership’s supposed to be voluntary, isn’t it mate, I ask them, so why are you dogging me and pestering me. I’ve got nothing against it, I tell them, you do it, like you’ve planned, let’s see how it fares, if it’s good, we’ll come along. You’d be a fool to turn your nose up at something good. They got together, decided to set the thing up but there aren’t enough people. There are eighty people communists but even they don’t want it, they’ve kept well away.”
When he instructed me how I should agitate people, Party Secretary Stoyan Kralev told me that Salty Kalcho had “signed up to the opposition”, and he insisted on finding out at any price whether he had decided this on his own or had someone put this bee in his bonnet and if so who. This was no vain curiosity on Stoyan Kralev’s part, he wanted to discover how this solitary coward of a man, who wouldn’t even talk about politics over the fence, could have been turned into our political enemy.
“Uncle Kalcho,” I said. “I’ve heard something about you turning towards the opposition. I never knew that you were taken up with politics.”
“Well what’s there to understand about politics!” he laughed heartily. “Politics – it’s about what’s good for me. The Opposition doesn’t give me nothing, but it doesn’t want nothing either. And the Communists don’t give nothing , but they want everything. All the grain, and the milk, and the wool and the land. If they carry on this way next thing we know they’ll be pulling our pants off. What kind of government is it to keep demanding and not giving nothing?”
That’s how he talked at everyone of our encounters but at the inaugural meeting he surprised all the ardent followers of the opposition. Just before the meeting, Stoyan Kralev took him to one side and talked to him as quietly and politely as he sometimes managed to do and promised among other things to appoint him watchman over the future collective. Salty Kalcho signed the membership form in front of him and from that moment became one of the collective farm’s hottest supporters. The very same day he got back his old musket that had been confiscated on the 9th of September, took it to pieces, cleaned it down to its last bolt, put two cartridges in his belt and reported the next morning to Stoyan Kalchev in full military regalia. He wanted to wear his uniform but Stoyan Kralev wouldn’t allow it.
“No militarism! From now on village land is in your hands, protect it as you would your eyes! The Kulaks don’t sleep and look to vandalise the nation’s property in any way they can. If you catch someone, arrest him, if he tries to run , shoot him!”
“Yes sir!” Salty Kalcho replied like a soldier.
He shouldered his musket, tilted his cap and took up his beloved duty, for which for years he’d kept alive a secret nostalgia in his heart. And while they ploughed up the village land boundaries and people flapped about like fish out of water, he circled the field with his shouldered musket, and later he sat under a tree and fell into meditation. Here in the midst of nature, shaded by lush green, flickering with the bright colours of autumn, or bare and sad with its blackened twigs, Stoyan Kalchev found refuge from people’s harsh and cruel behaviour. As always he felt a constant inexplicable fear of them, but couldn’t find the strength to oppose them and so easily fell under their influence. In spite of this he didn’t feel hatred or any kind of ill will towards anyone because according to him all people were good. When he was younger, he did demonstrate a certain practicality (if only to do everything possible to pass the time in the vineyard uninterrupted and leave all the farm work to the female family members) or he could lose his temper with someone, but in the last years, he lost all these petty instincts, so that Aunty Gruda sometimes noisily confronted him. She felt sorry for his character, but when she saw how easily he became putty in people’s hands, she tried to knock some sense into him and restore his pride.
“Don’t get together with Zhendo. He’s a bad man,” she told him.
“Well what’s wrong with him?”
“He rubbed out your young and innocent daughter, he stole your land, and you’ve gone talking politics with him.”
“He’s not a bad bloke, it’s just that life is bad.”
“And who makes it bad? People like him. I suppose you’re going to tell me that Chakov is good?”
“Well I think he’s good. Everyone’s good. It’s just that life forces them to do some stuff.”
“God almighty!” Aunty Gruda gave him a pitying look. “You were only born into this world to suffer!”
And in truth Salty Kalcho was not capable of self sacrifice but suffering and that was down to his soft trusting character. But this suffering, which he was used to like a chronic but supportable illness, didn’t drive him to desperation. In his long hours of thought and meditation in the midst of nature, he’d reached one and the same conclusion: that people could only mend if “they made their way to the truth.” But he’d never ever thought about what this truth was, or even reckoned that maybe every person has their own truth. That’s why he confidently accepted truth from anyone who managed to present him with the most convincing argument, and so he reached the paradoxical point where he served his own truth at the same time as serving the many truths of others. So he wandered amidst truths and it was this that caused him to suffer.
At harvest time the order went out for the wheat sheaves to be stored at the end of the village and be threshed there, so the grain could be collected at the right time from all the state stores. Many people stole wheat sheaves in the night and threshed it illegally in secret places around the village, they stole corn, potatoes and every kind of feed. Salty Kalcho came upon some of the thieves but he didn’t shoot them, as Stoyan Kralev had told him to, nor did he arrest them, because they had begged him to keep mum. “You see the state takes everything,” they said, “but a day’s wage is just twenty stotinka, and you only get that at the end of the year, we’ll die of hunger this winter!” Well that’s right Salty Kalcho would say, full of genuine sympathy, he advised them not to do such things again because it was against the law, and promised that he wouldn’t give them away. But the very next morning he’d report to Stoyan Kralev or the President of the Collective and spill out the whole truth with a clear conscience, whom he’d caught thieving and where.
The villagers were shocked to detect a ruthless streak which he had skilfully concealed to gain his idling position, but in order to keep it he gave up “his own” to the powers-that-be without blinking. Arrests, trials and fines followed and one guy who they’d been trying to trounce since he was an out-and-out opponent of the collective, was dispatched to a prison camp. Many people took against the watchman and didn’t delay their revenge. A number of times they ambushed him in the night and gave him a serious beating, they poisoned his pig, and once tried to burn down his house. The police would ask him if he recognised anyone who’d attacked him, and if he’d pointed someone out, even by mistake they’d have punished him or at least taken out proceedings, but Salty Kalcho couldn’t identify anyone. He suspected some folk, “but as I didn’t hear his voice or see his eyes I can’t get someone into trouble. The truth’s the truth, whatever it is!”
He didn’t forget former Sergeant Major Chakov either. However busy he was, he found time to pop over every one or two months, although just for a few hours. He would appear in front of him with his musket on his shoulder and his cartridge belt round his waist in which there’d always be little gifts hidden in two of the pouches. The sergeant major had kept his strength but dementia had hit him hard and he would ask his guest every time, who he was and where he came from.
“It’s me Sergeant Major, sir, Kalcho Statev, the second company.”
“Sit down! Where did you get that gun?”
While Salty Kalcho explained for maybe the fiftieth time where he’d got the gun from and why, the sergeant major took the gun with his trembling feeble fingers, drew back the safety catch, took aim and pulled the trigger. Afterwards he put the musket between his legs and asked again:
“Who’s given you permission to carry a weapon?”
“I’m the watchman at the collective farm, Sergeant Major.”
“Very well. Carry out your duty point for point or someone’ll get a stiff beating. Do you remember, Private Statev, how I thrashed you once in the company quarters?”
Dementia hadn’t yet succeeded in erasing these sweet memories from the sergeant major’s mind, his squashed wrinkled face lit up, between the yellow crusted eyelids shone two guttering flames, and his trembling fingers rose up to his mouth but instead of spitting on them, he licked them.
“I remember, how could I forget, Sergeant Major, sir, we were young, we were serving soldiers.
The Sergeant Major’s wife had died some years before, but he talked about her as if she were alive, occasionally shouted to her to treat his guest, or he talked random nonsense, which Salty Kalcho was embarrassed to listen to and so got up to go. What a man he was, he would think about his former sergeant major on the way back. When he shouted “Company-y-y!” it was enough top freeze every soldier’s blood. But that’s the way of it all, some rich, others poor, some beat, others suffer but in the end everyone in their grave, and there they become good, however they were born. And with this simple philosophy, with full forgiveness and sympathy towards his senile sergeant major, he made his way home.
After a year and a half the collective farm was a mess, and Salty Kalcho again fell under the influence of the opposition. Just as before he had believed that truth and justice were to be found in common ownership, so now he would state with the same conviction, that a man without his own land – it was as if had no hands or soul. Mate if it don’t belong to you, it don’t matter to you and if it don’t matter to you, that’s how little you’ll work it. Look, they forced us to make this collective farm, and when we made it, what happened? A great big nothing. People don’t want a collective farm and that’s a fact, and as they don’t want it, it shouldn’t be forced on them. Because you can’t expect anything good to come from something that’s been forced on you. It’s different if it’s yours, you’re rooted, struggle day and night, you won’t give up.
However his roots were not in his land, but somewhere else. As for any introspective and physically weak man, manual work was torture for him, he didn’t like farm work, and felt no love for his land. Unlike other villagers, for whom ownership land was an essential sacred right from time immemorial, he felt the impact of the revolution in quite a different way. For him collectivisation was just some kind of formal change in people’s property rights and didn’t affect him, no feeling for property was rooted in his heart. But the turbulent experience of revolution pulled him out of his solitary refuge, pushed him into the crowd, and forced their cares and fears upon him. Struck hard from every side, he was stunned and like any naive and innocent man with little social skill, he couldn’t regain his balance and so looked for it in others and believed he had found it in them.
After a year the collective was set up a second time, Salty Kalcho was again appointed as watchman and he stayed in this job until he reached the age of fifty five. During that time, his youngest daughter, Mitka married but his wife died and the son-in-law came to live with them. He turned out a very hardworking and capable lad. He was one of the first two tractor drivers in the village and enjoyed great respect. He strengthened the old house, built on two new rooms, planted a new vine, and after that busied himself with the yard, orchard and allotment. Salty Kalcho was proud of him and never missed an opportunity to sing his praises, that he had a son-in-law with no flaw. The son-in-law understood his father-in-law’s character maybe better than anyone else, and let him live his life in the way that suited him. After he retired from his job, Salty Kalcho would set out at any time and lose himself for hours. He walked to the vineyard or circled the fields and returned when it got dark. The son-in-law saw that his soul felt trapped indoors and that he yearned for the old musket that you could say he’d shouldered his whole life, so he brought him a double-barrelled shotgun back from the Soviet Union where he’d been on some courses. He got him a hunting licence so he could go out into the fields a few days a week. Little by little Salty Kalcho got closer to his comrades in the hunting club, began to go to the pub and drink a few glasses with the other men.
And so to the very day and hour as he stood at his post in the forest and reconsidered his life from Radka’s wedding to the wine-tasting in the pub. His feet were numb from the cold, he stamped on the ground, and shouted from time to time to the beaters to get back soon. Across from him no-one called out, not even Kiro Djelebov, who ought to have been standing a hundred metres away; from out of the gully, filled with white impenetrable snow drift, he could hear loud grumbling. Down there, thought Salty Kalcho, the snowdrifts were surely taller than a man, the beaters were sinking and couldn’t get out. To his left he could still make out the footprints he’d made in coming to the hiding place and he decided to find Kiro Djelebov, so they could see how they could help the beaters if they’d got stuck in the valley. And then it seemed to him that the noise was coming from above and it had dislodged a cloud of powdery snow. Then he thought he saw a looming human silhouette and shouted:
“Come on, people, hurry up, we’ll be snapping in this…”
Something hit him in the chest and tumbled him on his back. His head sank in the snow and he felt a warmth on his face that instantly spread through his body. It flashed through his mind that his feet must have frozen and could no longer support him. He made an effort to stand. He turned on one side, dug into the snow and succeeded in raising himself on his elbows. The snow warmed his face more, got into his mouth and nostrils so he could hardly breathe. In a final effort, he got to his knees, took a breath and remembered that, just before falling, he’d heard a quiet crack, like the snap of a breaking twig. The blizzard has snapped it like it’s snapped me, he thought, tried to get to his feet, and stood up. But his legs couldn’t hold him and he fell onto his knees again, and then he could only just see that the snowy pit where he’d rolled was all spattered with red. A sharp spasm like a hot flame ripped through his chest, he shouted something and his from mouth bubbled thick black blood which dripped down his chin over the snow. He collapsed as slowly as he had risen, first onto his elbows, then onto his stomach, he crawled towards the snow bank and pushed underneath it. Just his feet were left outside, in their Wellington boots, and only through their ever weakening slower twitching could you sense the last beat of his heart.