Goran built the house sixty years ago. He was a powerful merchant and traded in wheat, medicines, cotton and wool. In the troubled times after World War II, he fell in love with a Romanian woman. He dumped his wife, Mladena by name, and the woman pined away slowly, alone in the unfinished house. The merchant had built the roof above the rooms, it was true, but there were no doors or windows, and the brick walls had had not been plastered. Goran and Mladena had no children. That was the main reason why he took all the money and beat it to Austria with that Romanian beauty. He badly wanted an heir, he said many times. That Romanian woman, in Mladena’s opinion, was by no means pretty, just a prattling Gypsy who made eyes at wealthier men who happened to hang around her.
Mladena found herself broke. She came into possession of two wardrobes of fine Austrian suits, two suitcases stuffed with dresses, and a house with a dozen spacious rooms: with high ceilings which in winter froze with cold that no stove in the world could drive away. The neglected wife hung her head in shame. She became the talk of the town and, having no official documents, she couldn’t sell the enormous building: actually, not a building but a dozen gaping walls.
Mladena tried to sell her dresses. Nobody wanted a barren woman’s clothes – your daughter wouldn’t conceive and the whole town would jabber about that. Then Mladena started selling her husband’s suits. She attracted a few customers: Goran was a big shot in these parts, and his name was as good as gold in your purse. Mladena hoped that a bricklayer or a plasterer would buy her husband’s Austrian jackets. She put a sheet of paper on the front door: “I sell half-price suits to plasterers.” But you wouldn’t find plasterers in that town, where people made their houses of wattle and daub. Finally a man came to see the Austrian garments.
“I am a plasterer,” he said. “Give me one of these half-price suits.”
“If you really are a plasterer I’d like you to plaster the walls and ceilings of my house,” she sad. “I’ll let you live in the cellar or in that small room over there. But you’ll have to plaster the kitchen first. I’ll cook for you. You appear to be poor. I will sell Goran’s household goods and I’ll pay you.”
The plasterer gave Mladena the once-over and said, “Your neighbors told me your husband dumped you because you couldn’t have a child. Listen, I’m looking for a woman exactly like you. I won’t squander money on tarts while I plaster your house. Do I make myself clear? We’ll live together, you’ll cook for me and you’ll wash my clothes. I’ll plaster the walls and I’ll put in windows, too. If you agree, let’s do it. If I like you, I’ll start plastering right away.”
Mladena said, “But... There’s not even a bed here.”
“So? The floor will do. Don’t waste my time. If I don’t like you, I’ll leave five levs (Lev – Bulgarian monetary unit. One lev is equal to 40 US cents). I never leave a woman more than a fiver. If I like you, I’ll plaster the kitchen.”
He left her a fiver and made himself scarce, but after a week he came again and took to plastering. The man gave up after a couple of days, left another fiver on the kitchen floor and decamped from the house, dressed in one of Goran’s suits, a pair of Goran’s sandals on his feet. After a month he came back, but Goran’s suit and Goran’s sandals were gone. The man wore shorts, although this June was cold. He’d lost his garments gambling, he said. Then Rafko, that was his name, got down to plastering again — but he often needed Mladena’s help. He told her she’d better spread a blanket on the floor “every now and then,” and he’d leave a fiver for her. The problem was he had no money, but she could calculate how much he owed her. Rafko ate up all the bread and cheese in the house, and there were no potatoes or turnips in the cellar. Mladena didn’t have a penny to bless herself with. She had already sold Goran’s suits, Goran’s shoes, Goran’s chairs and Gorman’s cupboards, so she really counted on the thirty-seven fivers the plasterer owed her. The only thing she hadn’t sold was a sewing machine; she planned to pawn it. If worse came to worst, she intended to pull down the house and sell the bricks. She hoped to live off the bricks until she found a widower with little children. The woman reckoned she could take care of the kids and eke out a living with their father.
One day, Mladena grew desperate and put another advertisement on a piece of cardboard, “I sell half-price SINGER sewing machine to a widower with little children.”
Meanwhile Rafko plodded along, plastering the living room, but his trowel left humpbacked or cracked walls in its wake. When there was no more food in the kitchen, he stole potatoes and onions from other gardens, or he gambled - Mladena couldn’t tell for sure. Sometimes in the evening, he brought loads of food in black plastic sacks: muddy potatoes lay on top of loaves of bread, occasional chocolates, or sausages; you could find all that in Rafko’s huge bags. He gorged himself on peppers, olives, and cookies that he thrust into his mouth all at once. The more he ate the less he plastered, spending most of his time with Mladena on her only blanket. One day he suggested, “Listen, I’d better stop paying you. I’ve already fallen into your ways. You are as meek as a ewe. I’ll plaster your house for free and instead of living in the cellar I’ll move in with you. If I treat Priest Mano to a glass of brandy, he’ll marry us for free. We won’t go to the church. He’ll marry us in front of the Singer sewing machine, do you agree? Then I can go when I am fed up with you, and God won’t be cross with me.”
He lied to Mladena. He didn’t treat Priest Mano to a glass of brandy; he borrowed twenty levs from him instead. Rafko said he wanted to buy a wedding ring for his bride. He lied again, of course. He bought a tuxedo, a tie and a bed. A German engineer fell ill and soon met his maker. The plasterer took the tux and the tie from the man’s body for three levs – dirt cheap indeed - then stowed away the bed in which the engineer had died. Rafko promised the German widow to dig a grave for her husband in return for the bed. Of course, no one ever saw that grave dug.
Actually, Priest Mano couldn’t finish the matrimonial prayer. He read halfway through it when the plasterer said, “Stop. That’s enough. I don’t have money for more, mind you. Don’t pull a face at me, Priest Mano. It gets on my nerves! If you make a face again, I’ll strip your cassock and sell it to buy Mladena a wedding ring. Do you get my meaning?”
The priest raised hell but Rafko, the plasterer, clutched him by the throat and started taking off the black cassock. At a certain point, he said, “As a matter of fact, though, nobody would buy your smelly coat,” so he kicked the priest’s ass and rushed home to his wife, who had already spread the blanket on the dead German’s bed.
Soon, there was no more bread in the house again, but Rafko didn’t mind that.
“For the first time I don’t have to pay a woman,” he sighed happily, smiling at the gray, still unplastered walls. Rafko sold the Singer sewing machine and bought three bags of flour, onions and potatoes. He wanted his wife’s help all the time. After a week, the flour was gone, but he said potatoes would do.
“We have to repair the house,” Mladena remembered.
“Take it easy, woman,” he roared. “Some time or other I’ll plaster the house, to hell with it! Mladena, you are here now, let’s grasp this opportunity. Think about me! If you die, what shall I do? I have to search for another woman. Do you think I can find a meek one like you? No. Not even if I wore out ten pairs of boots looking for her.”
“Hey, Rafko,” Mladena said one day. “My period is late. Maybe I’ll have a baby.”
“So what?” he said. “You are not dead yet, are you? Let’s seize this opportunity! Don’t even think of going out, woman. Well, I’d prefer you were barren. But you look pretty to me. If the baby is pretty and healthy, we can sell it for fifty levs to some childless couple.”
When Mladena gave birth to a baby girl the townspeople exclaimed, “Wow! Mladena wasn’t barren at all!”
The Romanian beauty with whom Goran had eloped returned to Bulgaria, found Mladena and said, “Listen, Goran – may worms feast on his liver! – kicked me out because I couldn’t give birth to a baby. But you have to know, Mladena, he’s the guilty party. His seed is no good. It’s rotten. Look at yourself - you gave birth to a baby as big as a calf. I don’t have a roof over my head, Mladena, I’m flat broke. Will you let live in your house with you? You and I will plaster the walls together.”
The walls again remained unplastered. Rafko made the Romanian beauty sell her dress first, then her bracelet. After that she pawned her shoes and both of them drank and sang for a couple of weeks in the cellar. Finally Rafko moved in with her “for good.” Everything between them was okay while there was bread and cheese in Rafko’s bags. The Romanian started shouting dirty words in Romanian at him. Once she tied him to the bed, where he had fallen asleep, and thrashed him with his own belt, repeating, “Give me the 96 fivers you owe me!”
The next day, Rafko threw the beauty out into the street - she had only her nightgown on, the poor soul. Then he went to his wife’s room, took his baby girl in his hands and started singing to it. That was one thing the plasterer was good at: God had blessed him with a beautiful voice. The roosters stopped crowing in the morning while he sang to the baby, and the rooks didn’t caw in the poplar trees when he crooned a lullaby to the little one. Rafko soon tired of the baby and took off again. However, after a month or so, he came back to Mladena.
“I can live only with you. You are an angel. You are even an archangel and you have to know that.” He bowed down before her and kissed her knees. “The Romanian vixen tried to cut my throat twice. She gave me rat poison, too, and I puked up my dinner. She burnt all my underpants. Nasty virago! But you are an angel! Yes, you are, Mladena!” he whispered and kissed her knees once more.
Then Rafko started plastering the walls again, but not with much success. His eyes were on Mladena all the time. He often got down from the scaffolding and said to her, “Hang around me just in case. We can take advantage of the opportunity, you know.” From time to time he told her she was an angel, and in the evenings he sang to the baby. He held the little girl, smiled at her and said, “What a pretty child! She’s Daddy’s little beauty!”
Then Rafko took to singing and dancing at weddings and at birthday parties. At the end of the day, he brought bags of broiled chickens or pork chops, cheese and sometimes even a bundle of five-lev banknotes. Mladena couldn’t tell for sure if he’d stolen it all. He bought the baby expensive clothes and never said another word about selling it to a childless couple.
Rafko again vanished into thin air and the neighbors gave Mladena a hint that Rafko had eloped to Sofia with a young ballerina. The ceilings and walls of the house remained bare, but now there were windows and doors everywhere. Mladena regularly cleaned the stables of a wealthy man and washed his wife’s clothes. Although people of Pernik were as sensitive as paving stones, once in a blue moon they gave her old clothes for her baby girl. Actually, Mladena had already found her feet when Goran came back home. He looked wealthier than ever, arriving in a dazzling German car. Goran got out of it and saw Mladena’s daughter crawling in the meadow in front of the house.
“I know what you did while I was away,” Goran said to his wife. “It’s okay. I’ll take you back with the kid.”
Perhaps he knew he could beget nothing but fat bundles of cash and bank accounts. He hired bricklayers, master masons and plasterers, he had the place surrounded with stone walls, and he nailed gold and silver Austrian rattles above the toddler’s cot.
Of course, at a certain point Rafko the plasterer came back to the town, lo and behold! He couldn’t believe his eyes: Mladena’s place was surrounded with a wall, her house was roofed with marble slabs and the walls looked as if fresh snowflakes had fallen on them an hour ago! He made up his mind to go in and check out what had happened, but the moment he touched the front door two mutts as big as donkeys descended on him, growling and snarling. “Their throats are deep as caves,” Rafko thought, but caves or no caves he went for it. Mladena came out to see what trouble was brewing. He saw her, jumped eagerly, and shouted, “Let me kiss your knees! You are an angel! An archangel! I wore out twenty pairs of boots to look for a woman like you. Wow! There’s no other like you! Take my word for it. Listen, I’ve got a bag of bread and cheese here. Find a blanket quickly. I’ve lost patience, woman.”
“My husband’s coming home from work,” Mladena said. “He whitewashed the house and put new doors and windows in place.”
“What husband are you talking about?” Rafko seethed. “Didn’t Priest Mano marry us? And whose ass did I kick to make him get lost so I could kiss you! Mladena, didn’t you tell me, ‘With this ring I thee wed’?”
“But I didn’t have a ring,” Mladena said. “So what? Who is the father of the toddler in the yard, eh?”
“I tell you: Goran is here,” Mladena said. “Go away or he’ll shoot you dead.” “We’ll see about that!” Rafko said. Then he tossed some bones to the mutts, went to the toddler, hugged her to him and
started singing. A voice as beautiful as the sun poured out of his lips. Mladena forgot that he had sold her Singer sewing machine, ignored the fact he had left her with the baby. She forgot she had had to clean cow dung all winter. She just listened to Rafko’s song. The baby listened to it, too.
“Come on,” Rafko told her. “You know what we’re going to do.”
“No way,” Mladena said. “We can’t do that. Goran is coming home. Take the money and go,” she said and gave him a roll of banknotes. After Goran returned, there was money stored in all the drawers in the kitchen.
“Listen, come here and forget about the money. If by chance you die, then what! You are all right now, so let’s take this opportunity.”
They didn’t stop taking this opportunity until night fell. Then Mladena fed her daughter and Rafko sang to her. He sang and sang as if he had the music of ten hearts in his chest. Goran worked long hours that day. When finally he came home, Rafko and Mladena were about to take the opportunity again, celebrating the fact that Mladena was alive. Rafko was saying “There’s no other like you!” when he was aware something had gone wrong. A gun was pressed to the back of his skull.
“What are you doing here?” Goran roared.
“Can’t you see what I’m doing?” Rafko retorted. “You are blind if you can’t! Listen, either kill me with that gun or let me mind my business!”
Goran flew into rage and pulled the trigger. Fortunately for Rafko, he aimed at the ceiling.
“I sang to the child,” Rafko shouted. “I made a family for you. Now you have a daughter to give your money to, you idiot.”
Goran shot once again. His bodyguards rushed into the room like hounds. The next day the neighbors found pools of blood and wisps of brown hair all along the street near Goran’s house.
“Put on your clothes,” Goran ordered Mladena that night. “If I catch you again with him... Can you see this?” he asked and showed her the big kitchen knife. “I’ll cut your throat with it. You know I slaughter cows and lambs, so be careful.”
Mladena looked at the marble slabs on the floor. “Will you throw me out?” she asked. “Yes,” he said. He didn’t throw her out, though. He hired a neighbor to feed and lull the baby to sleep
and took Mladena to the cellar where he kept Rafko’s tuxedo and tie, the ones that belonged to the dead German engineer.
“Did that schmuck sing to you?” Goran asked his wife. “Yes, he did,” Mladena said.
“Then I’ll sing to you, too,” Goran declared. He opened his mouth and thundered out a couple of words. Mladena thought she heard five oxen moo, a bulldog snarl and fireworks splutter. The rooks flew away from the poplar trees, terrified; the roosters crowed although it was past midnight, and the baby wailed bitterly.
“Does he sing better than me?” Goran asked. “Yes, he does,” Mladena answered. “But he dumped you!” Goran shouted. “You dumped me before he did,” Mladena said. Goran took out a fat wad, laid the banknotes on her pillow and said, “He didn’t have
this! You cleaned cow dung and washed dirty underpants!” “He kissed my knees,” Mladena said. “Well, I won’t kiss your knees,” Goran said and put on the tuxedo and the tie. “Did he look better than me?” Goran asked his wife.
“Yes, he did,” Mladena said. The Romanian beauty came to beg money from Goran, but he set the dogs on her, then
he took the rifle from the wall to shoot at the woman. Fortunately for the Romanian, Mladena was there. She gave her bread and some ten-lev bills in an old purse.
“You are a good woman,” The beauty said and kissed Mladena’s cheeks. “Listen, Goran’s bodyguards broke Rafko’s legs. Now he’s in Sofia and he’s a beggar. Give me some more money. I’ll find him and I’ll help him.”
Mladena gave her more ten-lev bills.
Mladena’s daughter was very pretty from an early age. Crowds of boys thronged to see her and tell her she was the most beautiful girl they had ever seen. The stone wall that surrounded Goran’s house was covered with flowers. Young men wrote on it “I love you” in their own blood. Goran looked at the girl, sighed happily and could not believe his eyes. Young men trampled the grass around his house and trod dozens of paths to her window. She was the queen of the town and every day chose another young man, usually the one who brought her the most expensive necklace.
But at seventeen, Goran’s pretty adopted daughter gave birth to a baby girl, Ena by name. She couldn’t tell who the father was—he might have been anyone. Then Rafko’s daughter left the baby with Grandma Mladena and Grandpa Goran and went to live in Sofia.
By that time, Grandpa Goran was not a rich merchant anymore. He was an old man who suffered from rheumatism, and then bones in his body felt like a mouth full of bad teeth. Goran often played chess with another old man, Grandpa Rafko, lame in the left leg. In the evenings, the two geezers drank brandy together and when the night was warm, the one with the lame leg sang in a beautiful voice. Mladena thought he still had the power and the music of ten hearts in his chest. Grandpa Goran, although his rheumatism tortured him, sang too. In fact, he roared, and wailed, and sputtered as if he had an excavator in his throat that wanted to dig a ditch in the street. Mladena thought Goran wanted to frighten her away from the room where the two of them got drunk. However, Grandma Mladena didn’t scare easily. She sat opposite the two men, although she was sleepy and her legs hurt: every square inch of them hurt, but she cooked for the men and poured brandy into their glasses. Sometimes she watched a silly TV series for a change.
Young Ena was a quiet child, beloved by all who knew her: Grandpa Rafko with his angelic voice, Grandpa Goran and Grandma Mladena. The three of them were always by Ena’s side and the baby never wailed or sobbed. She grew up a most tractable child: quieter than the roof tiles, more tranquil that the air in the cellar where no one entered. The four of them lived in the same old house that summers filled with youth and winters with the most beautiful silver one could dream of.
Zdravka Evtimova is a Bulgarian writer, In Bulgaria, she works as a literary translator. Her short stories have appeared in various journals in seventeen countries in the world including USA, Canada, UK, Germany, Australia, France, Japan et. Her novels SIMFONIA BULGARICA and IN THE TOWN OF JOY AND PEACE were published in USA by Fomite Press.
Photo credit: Ewa Zelenay, Poland