After every national catastrophe,
the intelligentsia always regrets siding with the people.
From an article in a liberal newspaper
Society achieves harmony only in moments of tragedy, in the face of fateful events. And conversely, spontaneous celebration, freedom from cares and even happiness disconcert us. Thus, what makes
us happy now?
From an article in a liberal newspaper
Translator’s note: The title of the story is taken from the title of the Bulgarian national anthem; the story itself is a surrealistic resurrection of Bulgaria’s pantheon of nineteenth-century revolutionaries in a dystopian, twentieth-century setting. The “passengers” are all major national heroes, while Vasil Levski, also known as “The Deacon,” is the supreme symbolic figure of the Bulgarian nation, the personification of idealism, humanism, and self-sacrifice.
It was daybreak when they called the regional office. They said there’d been an accident.
“Where?” the sergeant asked.
The connection was fuzzy, the line was crackling from the snow. When he finally understood the answer, he immediately picked up the internal line. He roused the junior officer from his bed, then pulled on his boots and stomped through the on-call room. He woke the others, as well, and then went out to start the jeep. A sleepy officer remained in the on-call room and, so as not to fall asleep, began loading blanks into the ammunition clips.
The lieutenant was already waiting at the fork in the road, a cigarette dangling from his lips. His eyebrows were frosted over, his mustache was also frozen. On its tips hung little crystals of milk, which his wife had managed to foist on him before he set out. The lieutenant hopped in the jeep while it was still in motion and they floored the gas. The ambulance and the crane were already on their way up ahead of them. The accident had happened at the mouth of the gorge, right where the bridge came out of the tunnel and passed by the hamlets. What kind of accident exactly, it still wasn’t clear. The train? Or had one of the containers on the cable conveyor from the mine fallen? Or had a landslide undercut the forested slopes along the screes? But it was still early for springtime floods that ate away the soil and pulled up the roots of the trees—then what was it? It was early morning, it was too early to say. Some of them were dozing as they swayed on the hard seat. Others were smoking.
It’s immediately clear that the village is not exactly a village, it’s not even a hamlet, rather, a few jumbled houses built right on sheer slope. Each house hangs over the one in front of it, they are anchored to the hill. In the winter, their foundations, which are dug into the stone, creak. Through the airholes in the cattle sheds, which are as narrow as arrow slits, and from the second-story windows, there is one and the same view: white pines and winding hills. In the winter the hamlet grows deserted, as the road becomes impassable, even for tractors. The locals argue about whether it’s the highest inhabited place in the Balkans, but the truth is, it is one of the most inaccessible.
The police were driving along that very same road, winding and steep. The all-terrain vehicle with its blue light roared, spewing the scent of petroleum. It first caught up with the ambulance from the regional hospital. Further ahead, the tower crane bellowed, spitting black diesel fumes through its burned-out smokestack. The line of vehicles provoked dismay in random onlookers: the manager of the pumping station and a cold-addled hunter who was tracking a terribly stubborn winter hare for a second day.
Nearby, there was also a third solitary traveler. He flew straight down the clear-cut swaths on the slopes upon that technological wonder known as the Russian Beryozka snowmobile. He was the forest ranger, and behind him wobbled four freshly cut Christmas trees with sturdy green needles. Sprays of crumbly snow flew up from beneath the snowmobile’s treads. Forest Engineer and Head Inspector of the Regional Forestry Administration—that was his title. Now he was descending from his kingdom, sniffling, wiping the tip of his nose, and, from time to time, using his glove to smack the visor of his hat to knock the snow off it. Still, the snow kept falling, for the seventh day now. The engineer veered sharply to the side, the snowmobile’s two runners plowed into the snow drift. He eased up on the throttle and got up. He checked the Christmas trees to see whether they were tied on tightly enough, they were the reason he had gone out so early in the morning. His two cousins were waiting for him, without even turning off their cars’ engines—they would grab the trees and race back to the big city to their stressed-out wives. They would roast a pig, ladle sauerkraut out of barrels in the basements of their gray, many-storied apartment buildings, they would spank their children and take away their secretly bought fireworks. They would receive cold smiles from their eternally waspish wives instead of gratitude. For driving all this way in the dark to the mountain, over the impassable icy highways. Nagging their cousin there to chop down a few Christmas trees for them, the best ones. Then thanking him guiltily and on the fly, turning down a glass of brandy in the unplastered lean-to near the fence of the bachelor’s unkempt yard. At least the forest ranger didn’t have a wife yet—for better or for worse, the cousins couldn’t say. “What a fucking pain in the ass!” the forest ranger cursed aloud, taking out a small flask and taking a swig. He had taken another two Christmas trees down, as well, just in case someone else came crying to him. He stretched the nylon rope tight and secured the load. He took one more pull off the flask and got back on the Beryozka. Then he saw the cars—they had come around a bend and were slipping and sliding their way up the slope. He still couldn’t hear any sound, the snow had immersed everything in a mealy silence.
In silence like that, only the hopping of hares can be heard. There was definitely a hare nearby, but it was very sneaky. The smell of the machines had driven him up the hill, ruining the latest round of his game with the hunter. Because the hare was already on its way to giving up, to letting itself be killed. A hare’s fate is a heavy and sudden one. The thread of the hare’s fate is two-faced, because it is a pagan thread. Because the hare is sacrificed to many gods and has no other protector in the forest besides the white snow. “Ah, fate,” the hare said to itself, “your name is unchangeable! The udder you nurse me with is bitter! Your hand, which stroked my hare’s ears, is stern. Both your name and mine are unchangeable. It could be changed with one letter, with just a single solitary letter. And my whole appearance would change along with it. What if I were not a hare, but a pare? Or a nare? But if I were a spare, would you be any more likely to spare me from my wretched forest fate? I could be Zare, like some wise man from the East. Or motorized and mechanized like the forest ranger, with treads and runners, with bolts—I could be a metal bear! But would I be happy? Am I happy? Am I happy now? . . . ” When such thoughts grip the heart of the winter hare, he might find the following thought enticing: crossing through the hunter’s sights as if in slow motion, with slow, stretched-out movements, to extend full length in front of the rifle scope and—click! . . . But here he folded his long white ears, full of crumbly snow, and took off toward the ridge. “Thare, lare, kare,” the hare muttered to himself. “Ware—like some wildebeest! Dzare, like some Chinese hare! Teare—a Chinese hare drinking tea! . . . ” And pulling his legs up out of his tracks, he hid his nubby tail amid the pines.
The forest ranger takes another swig from his forester’s flask, without taking his eyes off the column of cars: an ambulance, police, machinery (the tower crane). Two or three hours later, a battered old Russian truck would pass by here, too, which was painful even to watch. It was called “the corpsewagon”—a formerly refrigerated truck whose freezer units had been removed. Flat shelves had been wedged in the body of the truck and covered with stainless steel, while canvas straps had been attached to the sides to tie down the bodies. A burned-out light bulb hung from the aluminum ceiling. The corpsewagon had originally been used to transport fish from the breeding pond at the old collective farm, then as a bread truck for the anti-aircraft division up above Smolni Bridge, and in the end—a corpsewagon. Today, that is its only function.
The machines struggled with the mountain, snow sent punctuated volleys against the windshields. Black and roaring, the cars sowed alarm. The forest ranger turned the snowmobile around and took off straight through the steep drifts. He was driving parallel to them. They noticed him. The police jeep slowed down and stopped. They explained to him briefly what was going on. The forest ranger cursed, glanced at his watch, then roughly untied the Christmas trees. He loaded up the lieutenant in their place, hit the gas and took off straight across the steep slopes. The snowy haze soon hid the silhouette of the snowmobile. Somewhere nearby in the forest a tree snapped and collapsed under the weight of its white branches.
Now up at the top, the forest ranger and the police lieutenant examined the site. The train car was lying twisted, crushed on both sides. It was resting against the icy slope, from which slices of ice had been stripped away, laying bare the roots jutting out of the earth and the edges of stones. At the other end—two broken trees, lying parallel to the body of the car, as if eavesdropping on something inside. Snow was piling up on top. Pine needles frozen in spheres, pebbles and ice, white ingots pressed by the landslide, mush poured on the iron belly of the train car. The parts, scorched by embers and oil, were slowly melting and sinking into the whiteness. It resembled a statue fallen into the ravine. Two of the locals were still fussing around it. They couldn’t help. Behind the darkened glass they saw the passengers’ bodies, dangling as if hanged. One of the village rescuers was dressed in an old striped jacket, his pocket stuffed full of snow. He had tried to crawl through the shattered window. Now the other was helping him brush off the snow and slip back into his fur coat. They were shepherds, dressed in a mix of work clothes and erstwhile formal suits. Their bags lay next to the scene, tossed off to the side near a sled with wooden runners resembling a trunk. Inside—a crate of bread and a few plastic jugs of cooking oil. When the forest ranger’s snowmobile pulled up above the ravine, on the edge of the highway that was as narrow as a creek, the two of them waved their arms and started pointing, as if the newcomers could have possibly missed seeing the train car. Later, in the frosty afternoon, the snow transformed into an impenetrable shroud, while the area around filled with human figures. They lit lamps and spotlights. Over and over, the tower crane tried, with a relentless screeching that echoed off the bodies of the frozen trees, to lift the car on its hook. The dogs tied up nearby did not cease howling hoarsely and intermittently. Some had come with the hunters who had turned up to help, others had been led by the militarized security forces at the telescope tower. In the end their howling became unbearable and the lieutenant ordered that they be taken away. Then the radio signal also managed to break through the fog. They heard voices over the walkie-talkie, through the muffling folds of the white ravines. It was the city delegation that was coming all the way from the capital—a police colonel, a major with two captains and a driver, doctors and ambulances, a van with tinted windows. The forest ranger started cursing again, but it was too late—the road along the steep slopes down below was already hopelessly jammed with cars and people. Then the forest ranger climbed up to the highest curve in the road. From there he could see the yellowing cone of headlights down below, the pulsating circles of the emergency lights. It immediately became clear to him: the cars were stuck, they couldn’t move. The tower crane, the only one that could possibly move them, was trapped up above, between the ravine and the cliffs. All around, the snow was piling up on the other vehicles, which had come to a halt after agonized tire-spinning. The forest ranger ran along the slope, slipped, fell on his ass, cursed again, and just like that, without getting up, slid down to his snowmobile. He revved up the Beryozka, turned its nose and impatiently, with a risky turn, headed downhill. For a whole hour, he brought the stranded delegation from the capital up one by one. A crowd had formed around the crash site. Someone had lit a fire, which smelled of petroleum, while half-burned rags and oakum flitted above its cold flame.
The officer from the capital city ground his teeth and tucked his watch beneath the cuff of his sleeve. It had gotten late. He tried to move his lips, but nothing came of it, he merely felt a sharp pain from the stretching, his face was freezing. In his tailored greatcoat and tall lined boots, the mayor sensed that first his legs, and then his whole body was beginning to tremble. He could feel the skin around his nose and mouth hardening, despite the snowflakes that wet it. The pale beams of the lamps and headlights grew hazy in a veil of snow. The other officer, the colonel, had taken shelter with the security guards up near the telescope tower, and was trying to radio the base, but without success. Escape from this trap seemed impossible, the machines were sunk in the drifts. The snow wouldn’t stop, the pass was closed both toward the valley and toward the village. Through the darkness, something like a soft fog fell, from which they were unlikely to emerge. Not before the next morning, in any case.
The mayor from the capital asked for a cigarette. The police lieutenant gave him one, spinning his chapped, cold-blackened thumb for a long while over the flint wheel of his lighter. The mayor inhaled the smoke into his lungs and bent down toward the shattered window. He examined the black cocoons of the bodies dimly visible inside, suspiciously, as if he expected one of them to flinch.
Botev, the poet-revolutionary, was dangling in the very front, next to the gray frozen glass, wrapped in his worn black cloak. His arms were not drooping, even though his body was fixed unrealistically in the air, hanging upside-down from the ceiling. Despite the opaque shroud and the cracks they could tell it was him, by the beard. The seat next to Botev was empty. Behind him—with tousled tuft of golden bangs, mussed by the car’s rolling and falling, scattered like the spread wing of a bird—was Levski, and it was difficult for all of them to even look at him. They didn’t even see whether his eyes were open, whether they were blue. Across the aisle from the Deacon were the next two, the first of them in a cassock. It was Paisiy: one of the priest’s hands was stretched out toward the ground, and the wrist looked pale. His monk’s rosary had fallen into the passage between the seats, but he wasn’t reaching out to pick it up. Next to him: Benkovski with his bandoliers and the straps that had held his pistols around his neck. The aiguillettes had frozen and were stretched as though by some invisible force instead of tilting downward from the weight. To the left there were more familiar faces, but at the end, one silhouette seemed to be hiding—there where the glass had been shattered and the window was pressed against the bared stones of the steep slope. The major bent down, he couldn’t see who it was, who was there at the very end, behind Volov and Stambolov. He strained, exhaled, and squeezed between the seats. Paisiy’s hand swung by his shoulder, perhaps he had bumped it, perhaps the monk had touched him or was even blessing him, but the major couldn’t turn to the side in the cramped space amid the pieces of glass like ice, ice like shards of a glass knife—his emptied lungs ached, but he could not breathe deeply if he wanted to continue. He wriggled a yard forward, pushed aside a torn flag with green brocade and a frozen lion with a paw lifted as if ready to pounce—now there was the unknown silhouette at the end. The major could now see him: he was lying behind the seat. Or it was simply a pile of clothing and there was no one there. No, there was someone there.
The revolver suddenly jumped out in front of his chest, with a click it cocked drily and suddenly. Levski’s face anxious, pained from an invisible wound. In his eyes the strain of his last ounces of strength could be seen, but his hand gripped the revolver without even trembling.
“Freedom or death!” the Apostle said.
The shot rang out, the bullet pierced the cold air as if in slow motion. “Freedom or death,” the slogan on the flag could also be seen as the thick cloud of gun powder shook the closed space. The major’s lungs could have exploded from the shock and from the shot, from the bullet and from the blast-wave under the frozen buttons of his uniform. So in the very front there was some doppelganger of Levski’s, dressed up like him as a decoy in case he needed to draw away the fire. So that guy up in the front hadn’t been Levski, only a trick, a shadow with closed eyes. The officer realized that only with his eyes closed could Levski have fooled them. If he had looked at them point blank, they would have recognized him by his blue gaze. Everyone knows the blue of his eyes. Blue like the beads used to ward off the evil eye. Vasil Levski’s eyes were now closing or the officer’s eyes were closing. In any case, the blue color of his eyes faded and the light gradually went out. Their reflection in the snow also faded.
One of the Sofia captains was dictating orders while the other was struggling to write them down in a ruled notebook. The letters kept coming out crooked, as if he was skiing slalom with the pen between the spots made from snowflakes falling on the paper. Nobody liked this procedure, but they all knew—it was inevitable. One by one, the bodies needed to be described. Their possessions and documents – needed to be removed and set aside. Only afterward would the victims be carried up on an improvised stretcher made of tarp. On the road, every bit as dead and now with its engine cut, the corpsewagon was waiting.
“ГОРДА СТАРА ПЛАНИНА” © Georgi Tenev. By arrangement with the author. Translation © 2015 by Angela Rodel. All rights reserved.