We are all strong and difficult people in our family. My father drank, it was true, but he made the best cornel brandy in Southern Bulgaria, and Bulgarians, Jews, and Greeks alike gave their last penny to buy Dad’s home brew for their sons’ weddings. My elder brother was the best rider in the country far and wide, and my younger brother could drink as much as all the eels in the Struma River without falling from his chair. My sister sang beautifully. Guys gave her jars of honey and covered the path to our small house with roses for her to step on.
My mother wove woolen rugs and she could cure fidgety children who scared easily. She cast lead bullets for them, and while the lead melted in the pot, she mumbled the kid’s name under her breath. Then the little one forgot all his fright and fears. I’d seen this time and again, but I couldn’t explain what happened, not if my life depended on it. Mother was held in high esteem and Dad was a man to be reckoned with. The only person in the family that lacked distinction was I, the youngest sister.
That was bad.
I cared for Grisha.
I had noticed Grisha first when Dad organized the Big Bet. To be honest, he didn’t organize anything, he let our neighbors drink some of his cornel thunder and that was enough. Guys could hardly pay him for the brandy they’d drunk. It was true Grisha repaired his motorbike for free, another guy dug our cornfield for Mother, a cousin of ours plastered the walls of our living room, etc. The guys had carts and good horses. Dad made wonderful brandy but no one could pay him well enough.
The Big Bet was a race in which the best cart and the best horse won. Grisha was a magician because he made your horse-drawn vehicle glitter, sing, and sparkle. The competitors climbed in their carts and raced down the dirt road, stirring up dust as black as midnight, hooves hitting stones and crushing them into powder. The guy who won didn’t collect money for there was no money among the cornel brandy drinkers. As clever as he was, Dad thought up an interesting reward for the champion in the Big Bet. The winner chose one man among the population of the village to work for him for a day without being paid. It was easy to guess who the most sought-after guy was: Grisha.
Grisha was the only man in the district who could make your old Volkswagen start even in the dead of winter. His shoulders were as broad as the dirt road that clambered the hill to our place. I loved the way he spoke, slowly and powerfully like a church bell.
Our village was big, all green and warm at the end of summer, and the river had not run dry completely. Some bigshots from the nearby town drove their old Fords and Peugeots, pushed them into the gorge the river had dug, and left them there, in the thick mud, to rot away. But they didn’t know Grisha! He fixed the jalopies. From three rotten Fords, he put together one pretty good car, then sold it dirt cheap. He rolled in money, but I didn’t care about his wealth. I cared about him.
The second thing I cared about was horses. They didn’t shout at me, they carried me on their backs, and they loved the bags of barley I plucked for them. I was good at driving carts and all the time I dreamt I’d win the Big Bet. Then I’d have Grisha for a whole day.
He came to our house when my sister sang and never noticed when I sang.
He didn’t know I swept the street in front of our porch for him. I knew the paths he preferred and I planted geraniums and lilac bushes there. Come on, somebody who knew our village would say. These paths are so steep lizards can’t creep on them! That was true. It was difficult to plant lilac bushes on stone and make them survive in the heat. I carried pails and pails of water to the bushes and geraniums, and I left roses and bottles of cold lemonade for Grisha to find. He didn’t notice me.
So one day — it was scorching hot, and the grass was motionless in the motionless air — I saw him pass, and I made up my mind. His hands were greasy, his face was greasy as well, and his eyes were indifferent. My heart became as small as a hazelnut.
“Grisha,” I said as I jumped in front of him. “I am Anna and I am the daughter of Lila who casts lead bullets for faint-hearted kids, and sister of Pesho who drinks powerfully. Even you can’t out-drink him. My father is the guy who makes cornel brandy, and you staggered and teetered after you drank from it.”
“I didn’t teeter!” he said angrily.
“You did,” I said. “But I didn’t stop you to argue about that.” I felt something had gone wrong. His voice was sharp and wrong too.
“So why did you stop me?” he said.
I had rehearsed two hundred times what I’d say to him, but now when the time had come, my mouth felt dry like the dust on the road that climbed the hill, and my tongue was as heavy as the hill.
“Because I … I like you,” I said, which was true.
“All girls in the village of Staro like me,” he remarked, which made me angry.
I had picked roses for him and had trudged up the barren hill to bring lemonade for him.
“I want you to marry me,” I said.
He stared. And that made me so angry I could have burst into tears or into flames, which was all the same to me.
“Ha, ha!” He burst into laughter instead.
“Does ‘Ha-ha!’ mean ‘yes’?” I said, boiling and seething. I didn’t make cornel brandy, neither did I cast lead bullets for faint-hearted kids, but I was Anna and I would have no one laugh at me.
“I’d rather marry a worm than you,” he said.
I looked at him. Yes, he was handsome, and he repaired the jalopies of the entire district, and all the girls wanted him, but I was Anna!
“Shall I take this as ‘No’?” I said, trying to appear calm.
“You understood me perfectly well,” he said. “I won’t marry you.”
I was on the verge of saying there’d be no more roses strewn on the paths he chose to take for his walks, nor would he find bottles of lemonade left for him to drink, but I changed my mind.
“Goodbye, Grisha,” I said.
“Ha, ha,” he laughed again.
“Don’t say I have not asked you,” I said as he turned his back on me and strode purposefully down the path.
“Ha, ha.” His laughter echoed like a whip on a horse’s back. And I knew how a horse felt after you whipped him.
But there would be a Big Bet again! Dad had brewed another barrel of cornel brandy. Well, why didn’t anyone ask who’d picked the cornels, who sprinkled sugar on the mixture and who cleaned the cellar where the cornels took a century to ferment? It was me. I had thrown a lizard into the barrel and the brandy was sure to climb up your head like a lizard. The brew had a big kick in it because I kicked the barrel so many times that every cornel turned into a fist that would clout you across the side of the head.
The Big Bet day came and Dad announced it was Grisha who’d work a whole day for the winner.
“Come on, Anna,” Mother said. “Go and pour out brandy for the guys. The whole village will participate in the race, so don’t give them too much to drink.”
“I’ll pour no brandy into anybody’s glasses, Mom,” I said. “I’ll participate in the race myself.”
“What!” my mother said choking on her tongue. “A woman can’t drive a cart. And nobody’s heard of such a stupid thing.”
“You cast lead bullets and the kids are no longer afraid of anything in the world,” I said. “But I need no bullet of yours. I want to win the Big Bet Race.”
“No!” my brothers, one the best rider and the other the best drinker in the village, said. “We won’t give you a horse and we won’t give you a cart. Shame on you, Anna!”
“I won’t ask you to give me a cart and a horse,” I said. “I’ll go and take them myself.”
“No!” Dad said. “Look at your sister. She’s as meek as a calf and sings better than our TV. Why don’t you try to sing like her?”
“Why don’t you sing like her, Dad?” I said, and he declared he was no TV and he was a brandy maker, then he nodded shortly.
I knew what that meant. This had happened before. My two brothers, my mother, my father, and my sister who was as meek as a calf sprang to their feet and surrounded me. My brothers threw a belt around my shoulders. Then Mother, who was as strong as three men, sat on my feet.
My meek sister tied my legs with the belt of her dress; my best-drinking brother tied my arms with a piece of rope — the same one I used when I dragged him from the pub to our one-story house. Oh no, he wasn’t drunk, he mumbled as I tugged him along. He wanted to prove how grand he was. My best-riding brother tied me to the chair with an old bridle and said, “We are doing this for your own good. The carts will crush you like an egg and you’ll die, then who else will go pick cornels for the brandy?”
“You are my favorite child,” Dad said. “Everybody is somebody best among us. You are nobody and that saddens my heart.”
“Here, drink some cornel brandy,” my nightingale of a sister said. “Come on, drink that,” she encouraged me. “You’ll fall asleep even before the guys put the horses to the carts. I’ll sing for you and you won’t suffer.”
I felt like tearing up her nightingale ears and feeding them to the dogs.
Mother didn’t say anything for a while, then suddenly she opened the window.
“You wailed like a lion when you were a baby,” she said. “I sang to you and you howled louder. Your father and I danced for you to make you shut up. You wouldn’t stop. You roared as if your tummy was full of vipers. Then I happened to open a window and you became as quiet as a worm. I’ve opened it for you now. So I hope you’ll feel good, Anna.”
Then my famous family, Father, Mother and all, went to the Big Bet. Dad had drunk enough so he burst into song and the minute he opened his mouth a glass fell from the table and my best-riding brother dropped down on the floor — that was his trick to make Dad shut up. Alas, no success this time! The nightingale in the family, my sister, suddenly crooned too — that was how she hoped to discourage Dad’s singing efforts. My drinking brother produced a bottle of brandy and tried to smuggle it to Dad, but Mother, I’ll give her that, brandished the poker she’d grabbed from the hearth and roared, “Stop singing, man, or you’ll be dead in an instant.”
It was the poker that brought Dad back to sobriety and drove good sense into his head. He stopped roaring and rumbling, and said, “Whatever you say, sugar,” to Mother.
“Sugar or no sugar, you’d better be quiet,” my Mother said pointedly as she took out her Black Notebook. In it, she wrote down who drank from our cornel brandy and noted if the guy had to dig a cornfield, weed our peppers, or paint the walls of our kitchen to pay off his debts.
They all went out, leaving me tied like the old ox Mother wanted slaughtered after a week. I was not an ox so I started gnawing at the bridle my drinking brother had tied me with. Like everything else he had, that bridle was half rotten, and although the saliva in my mouth tasted bitter like the poison I killed cockroaches with, I gnawed the thing through and through. My hands were free.
I had no other cart but the old two-wheeled gig Dad kept in the back yard and drove the city folks with, showing them our beautiful countryside. Beautiful my foot! There were big sand hills that wind and heat had nibbled away. Waist-deep nettles were all over the place, thorns, hawthorns, thistles and elder trees flourished and burgeoned, and there were so many lizards crawling around that you stepped on them. The slopes were steep. Snakes and goats climbed the scorching hot outcrops of rocks, and dwarf cornel trees struck root in the cracks amidst the sandstones. The soil was so red that if you cut your finger no blood — red sand — would spurt from your wound.
In the Big Bet, one had to drive his cart through the tract of red land from the top of Purple Hill and reach the bottom of Scarlet Gorge, following the road in which the ruts were so deep you could swim in them if it was raining. I rushed to the gig and then I saw there was no horse left for me.
My best-riding brother had taken Lightning, our huge stallion that would eat nothing but barley, so supercilious a beast he was. My elder brother, the drinking talent, had taken our second horse, or should I say a limping ruin, but he’d already had a glass or two, and hobbling or limping horses made no difference to him. The nightingale, as always very special, rode the young colt Mother was to swap for a motorbike after the Big Bet was over. Mother’s lead bullets had become so popular that after thinking and rethinking for a month, she made up her mind it was more advantageous for her to visit her patients riding a motorbike than a horse.
Marko, our scraggy obstinate donkey, happened to be the only living soul in sight. He was grazing dry yellow thistles in the backyard. If I had not found Marko, I’d have put our goat before the gig and I’d have run for the Big Bet.
Marko, the gig, and I were the last to come to the venue of the competition. It was a dry meadow, all yellow grass and red sand under the hooves of the horses.
“Hey, look who’s there!” the guys whistled, and the drinking talent, my younger brother, came up, grabbed my ear, and pulled it very hard indeed. Then he spat on the gig and kicked the belly of the innocent donkey.
“Go home. Now,” he hissed, frothing at the mouth. “Our family will be the laughingstock of the district because of you.”
I tried not to squirm.
“You go home,” I hissed back. “My victory will be the talk of the district. And you will buy me a bike to glorify my achievement.”
“Isn’t she an idiot?” I heard my mother say.
“We are all democratic fellows here,” Grisha, the boneshaker repairer, said. “Let her participate.”
“I’ll participate not because you say so, but because I want to,” I snarled. “Mind you what I’ll do to you after I win you for a day.”
“Perhaps marry him?” a guy with a horse, as big as a hotel, said. “Are you beautiful enough?”
“I am,” I said. “I’ll do what I’ll do.”
The deep-rutted dirt road the competitors had to follow climbed down the red precipitous slope. The hill was cut and carved by three wild streams, all of which had run dry, and gaped like mouths full of bad teeth. There were three narrow bridges over them, all shaky and rickety structures; then the carts had to cross the river at the foot of the hill. There was no water in it, just thick rich mud, overgrown with bulrushes and teeming with water snakes, tadpoles and frogs. The old church, Saint Ivan Rilski the Miracle Maker, was on the opposite shore, in the middle of a flat patch of land, where we all gathered for Christmas and Easter to eat, drink, and celebrate.
The track was narrow and tortuous, there were sharp stones that had wrenched wheels off carts before, and the rumble the hooves produced deafened young and old. Weeks after the Big Bet Mother couldn’t hear Dad grumbling under his breath, a fact that suited the family fine. Dad usually sold two barrels of his brandy — which meant that Dad’s buddies had to weed and sweep for Mother. As a rule, these guys were as industrious as mountain rocks. Like rocks, they wouldn’t budge, and it was their wives who spun for us, and knitted pullovers for the drinking talent, the nightingale, and for me.
The carts were arranged in a row, all seven of them: my two talented brothers, the rider and the drunk, and five more guys. I was at the very end of the row, on a strip of land where there were more stones and lizards than air to breathe.
“Get out of my way!” the guy next to me said, and kicked my donkey.
I kicked his horse in return, and it was after the kick that Dad gave the signal. He whistled, waved his cap, and all seven carts rumbled down the hill, raising clouds of red dust and whirlwinds of sand. I, my gig, and Marko the donkey waited for the dust to settle. The onlookers: the nightingale, the housewives who bet saucepans and teapots on their husbands, the girls who bet their belts on their sweethearts, all shouted, “Hello, the laughingstock there! Waiting for Ivan the Miracle Maker to kick you?”
I had a plan, a daring and wild one. I wouldn’t follow the dirt road. I’d take a shortcut through the dry brambles, briars, thistles and thorns I had so often roamed around picking cornels for Dad’s dangerous brandy. So I kicked Marko, trying to make him run though the dry grass, the spikes and barbs. The beast wouldn’t budge so I kicked him much harder. Off Marko went.
The gig hit sharp stones, briars and hawthorn bushes caught it, but the hill was as steep as a hanging rope, so the animal couldn’t stop. My vehicle cut its way through dry nettles, Marko ran and brayed terrified, I shook, jumped and bounced, clutching the reins, seeing only Marko’s tail and hooves. I didn’t know what hit him, maybe a branch of a cornel tree, then something bit me, and another thing whipped and slapped me across the face. Marko whinnied, neighed and shrieked. He couldn’t stop.
We thundered across the first dry stream and a flying stone clobbered me on the forehead. Then we roared and boomed across the second and third dry creeks, or did we? Small flies got into my eyes and bramble branches scratched my neck. Marko could not stop. Then suddenly there was mud everywhere around me, mud in my eyes and ears, and I could no longer see Marko’s tail. The gig under me shook, wobbled, and rattled, something wet and slimy slid down my blouse. I didn’t care.
“Saint Ivan Miracle Maker, help me!” I shouted.
Marko the donkey brayed for help too. He was alive and kicking, the happy thought crossed my mind, and that was the last thing I remembered. In a haze, I saw one of the wheels fall off. Then the gig hit something hard, a snag, a rock, or a bone of a dead ox. The second wheel fell off. A wet muddy thing hit my nose. Marko brayed, trumpeted, pulled hard and flew downward with the wind. I fell, my back hit the ground, and I lay prostrate like a pair of cheap wet pants. I’m dead, I thought, but I wasn’t. From the corner of my eye, I saw a big cross and a stone wall: I was in front of the church, Saint Ivan the Miracle Maker. The gig, having lost all its wheels, drooped by my side, and Marko, the beast, all spluttered with mud, was licking my face with his wet cool tongue.
All my bones hurt. My nose bled and there was red mud in my mouth. The left sleeve of my blouse hung down my shoulder, a mere rag, and a frog jumped from it. There was no trace of the other sleeve. A slimy thing crawled out of my pants pocket and inched away creeping as best as it could up in the dust. A small water snake. Another grimy thing moved inside my blouse, slithering and hitting the skin of my belly. Briar branches and brambles hung from my hair.
I looked around. There was no other cart in front of the church, Ivan the Miracle Maker. The saint had done a wonderful job at saving my and Marko’s lives. On the other hand, he had thought it was beneath him to save the gig. As I watched, a sideboard of my vehicle broke up and fell onto the ground. Then I noticed all the other carts had stopped and the horses stood motionless in the heat. Competitors, their sweethearts, wives and mothers, neighbors, and children, all stared at me as silent as their empty pockets. I tried to stand up, staggered, and my nose landed in the dust.
“She’s alive!” my mother shouted, and they all rushed to Ivan the Miracle Maker, who stared modestly at the mud in the river from his beautiful icon in the church. I saw Grisha, the man with the nimblest hands in South Bulgaria, rush toward me, and I thought of the mud in my hair, of the slippery thing that squirmed under my blouse. My head was as heavy as the gig and as shaken. Then I realized I had not yet reached the finish line.
I scrambled to my feet, shook violently, and fell. I scrambled to my feet again, grabbed one of the broken boards of the gig, and dragged it forward to the church. I wanted to win the race and win it honestly.
I pushed my way to the flat patch of land and collapsed in the middle of it. I’d reached the finish line. I won. Then I spat mud in the dust and lay breathless on the yellow grass.
I was just trying to sit up when Dad reached out his hand to help me stand. I disregarded it. I had something much more important to concentrate on. Grisha was the second after Dad to reach me. He bent down and stared. His eyes looked terrified as he scrutinized my filthy feet, my mud-caked face and grimy hands.
“I got you,” I said. “I won you and you are mine for a whole day.”
“Priest Mano will refuse to proclaim you man and wife,” my mother said, still panting. She had run from the top of the hill down to the church, and I was suddenly glad she was sweating profusely. She stopped speaking as she tried to get her wind. “No marriage is supposed to last less than a day.”
The carters and their sweethearts, my brother, the drinking talent, and my elder brother, the rider, looked at me, their eyes burning.
“I’m proud of you!” the best rider said. “No one dared drive a gig through the Snake Gorge!”
“You flew over the crags! You drove Marko as if he were an angel!” my drinking brother said. “I love you, little sister. I love you!”
“And I’ll bring all faint-hearted and white-livered children to you,” my mother said. “I’ll let them touch the hem of your skirt and they’ll never be afraid of anything in their lives.”
The nightingale opened her mouth and a magnificent song poured out of it. This was the song about Ivan Rilski the Miracle Maker who, we believed, was born in our village. Then all of them, the carters and their sweethearts, their mothers, cousins and neighbors who had come to bet on the best cart, sang along. They shouted the words of the song, and they all stood motionless.
They sang for me.
They drank a lot, all of them, and my brother the drinking talent was proud they were his friends. Maybe the cornels were the reason their voices were so powerful, or maybe it was the river that made the tune rich, or the wind they breathed in was in the song. Their song was strong. My mother cast her lead bullets and was famous; my father brewed cornel brandy, and everyone in my family was known far and wide. But I was the first one, the only one in the whole village that the best carters sang the song about Ivan Rilski for. They sang and I tried to stand up. Finally, I scrambled to my feet and sang along. I loved the hill and the broken gig. As I bent to kiss Marko, the donkey, on the forehead, the slimy thing crawled out of my blouse and thudded on the red, caked earth. It was a big frog.
“What will you do to me?” the most beautiful voice asked me — Grisha’s.
I thought about it. To be honest, I didn’t even have to think about it. I knew.
“Dad has a big barrel in which he keeps the cornel brandy,” I said. “I want you to climb on that barrel and stay there all day long.”
“Why?” he breathed.
“All day long,” I said. “I’ll watch you.”
The carters laughed, their sweethearts snickered, and Dad growled, “You’ve got a screw loose. He can repair my old Ford instead.”
“He can assemble the engine of my motorbike,” the drinking talent ventured.
“No,” I said. “I won him. He’s mine for the day.”
When everyone was quiet, Grisha, the expert mechanic and loudmouth, looked me straight in the eye and said, “Well … if you ask me the same question which you asked me before the Big Bet began … my answer will be positive. You just have to ask me once more. And I’ll say yes.”
I looked him straight in the eye and said, “No.”
“Hey, nitwit, you’ve got him,” my brother, the best rider, said.
“I don’t ask the same question twice,” I said.
“You are more obstinate than Marko the donkey,” my nightingale of a sister said gruffly. “And you are less intelligent than him.”
Everybody was quiet, and then the most beautiful voice, Grisha’s, said, “Will you marry me, Anna?”
I couldn’t believe the words I’d just heard.
“Anna, dearest,” the most beautiful voice said.
I stole a look at Dad, who was scratching his head, speechless. My mother, although she was a brave woman and cast bullets against fear for young and old, stared at me unbelieving.
“Will you become my wife, Anna?” Grisha said.
“I have to think about it,” I said.
Oh, come off it, I knew what I’d say. I’d dreamed about it a thousand times. The gig had no wheels, and Marko was a sorry sight, all covered with mud, a couple of leeches gleaming like stickers on his back.
“Yes, Grisha, I will,” I said. “But you’ll climb atop that barrel and stand on it for an hour, okay?”
Zdravka Evtimova was born in Bulgaria where she lives and works as a literary translator from English, French, and German. Her short story collections have been published in different countries around the world: Bitter Sky (SKREV Press, UK, 2003), Somebody Else (MAG Press, USA, 2005), Miss Daniella (SKREV Press, UK 2007), Good Figure Beautiful Voice (Astemari Publishing, USA, 2008), Pale and Other Postmodern Bulgarian Stories (Vox Humana, Canada/Israel, 2010), Carts and Other Stories (Fomite Books, 2012), Time to Mow and Other Stories (All Things That Matter Press, USA, 2012), Endless July (Paraxenes Meres, Greece, 2013), Impossibly Blue (SKREV Press, UK, 2013), and Wrong and Other Stories (Tiktakti Books, Tel Aviv, 2014). She is the author of two novels God of Traitors (Book for a Buck Publishers, USA, 2007) and Sinfonia Bulgarica (Fomite Books, USA, 2014).