Video: Yordanka Beleva reads a section of “Keder” in the original Bulgarian.
For Auntie Nedjna
I can tell you this story in forty trees, forty trees that will never thicken to a forest and will instead slowly fade from the paysage. No, this isn’t a verdant story, and, if there can be such a thing, let it be sepia, like the neighbor’s jacket. It’s what they buried him in.
The morning after the neighbor’s funeral, the sun rose over his bicycle and its burst tires. His family quickly replaced the tires. I can’t tell you if they did this out of habit or because it mattered to them that the bike was exactly as the departed had left it. These mornings kept on repeating until someone figured out why. It was keder.
Keder is a Turkish word; it means sorrow. Way back, the old Turks believed that when you die, you bequeath to your nearest and dearest precisely forty sorrows. One for each of the forty days that follow death. As the days go on, fewer sorrows remain, but the last one stays forever. It was like something out of Ali Baba and the Forty Thieves—the soul of the departed and all its sufferings got serried together, loaded into a sack, and brought down into the underworld. The sacks were all different sizes depending on the kind of person you’d been: young or old, with children or without, one who’d been kissed or one who hadn’t. Most important of all: whether you, in life, had been a heavy sigher. Sighs were deceptively light, like tons of cotton. Only the soul knew the real weight of deceptively light things; what it was to live and what it was to die with them.
It was keder to not be able to lay eyes on your family again, to have that suddenly and permanently severed from you. It’s much harder to leave if you’re looking at each other. But it was also keder to not leave any family behind to mourn you. Also on the list of forty sorrows: if you’d never been to a wake; if you’d died with secrets; if you’d never repaid your debts; if you’d never asked for nor been granted forgiveness; and many other such misfortunes, depending on the departed’s worldly days. The biggest keder of all was unfinished things.
What remains of one’s legacy, truly? The seeming irrefutability of every written line, every delivered grandchild, every finished house is misleading. Nothing is as eternal as unfinished business. With its alert coma—that irregular communication between those interconnected vessels hope and resignation. Unfinished things, past continuous tense. Someone telling the story of you in that tense.
The neighbor’s house had been finished a long time ago. His kids had finished something too: school. And then they’d chosen to settle in the city. Eventuations described his life entirely, leaving no room for a beginning—or at least it seemed like everything that happened was an ending. He’d been a quiet person, smoked too much. Every day without exception he rode his bike out of the village. His wife, unprompted, shamefacedly explained that he had to go see about his cornfield. You wouldn’t exactly call it a big field, no. Two and half acres of corn, just enough to feed the animals in winter.
That’s where they found him—in winter, in his cornfield.
Were it not for the neighbor’s burst bicycle tires, they would’ve forgotten all about him, but the mysterious deflation blew up the whole story. Now the villagers recalled all sorts of things that had happened and looked for signs of the neighbor’s afterlife, which they also kindly invented for him.
As a young man, the neighbor had fallen in love with a young woman from the village. She had loved him too. But when, in any village, love doesn’t lead to a wedding altar, gossip blooms. Someone even came up with a song to mock the two. The villagers all sang and they all cackled. All but the two whom the song was sung about. The song only broadened the territory of their stain. In those times, people pointed at stains but couldn’t figure out how to see the whole mess. And because it was far easier to dirty clean people, the neighbor and his beloved chose to remain unconnected. Except for at the cornfield. As though out of spite, fate had put their cornfields on neighboring parcels.
And as if that hadn’t been enough for her, fate also planted a wild pear tree right on the border between the two plots. Below ground, the roots grew, entangling, replacing the hands that would remain unentangled above ground. The pear tree’s bark thickened, but it wasn’t enough to offer protection from people’s gossip. Soon birds took refuge in the tree’s crown, as though to show off just how easy it was to build a nest. And just how difficult the easiest of things could be. The branches shot up, but the possibility of a life together for the two lovebirds pruned away.
The woman pruned away too, shriveled, and quickly retreated below ground. Before that she’d made the man swear he’d never cut down the tree. Because it had been the symbol of their beautiful nonfruition, the powerless beauty of love: bearing the sweet fruits of the wild that could never flourish among people.
It was then the neighbor began his daily trips to the cornfield.
In the beginning, he held the pear tree. As the years went on, he situated himself just underneath its shadow. Oftentimes it was enough to just glimpse it from afar, make sure it hadn’t been cut down, that it still existed. And if the pear tree had once carried on what had been unfated to happen, the bicycle carried on the melancholy man, or at the very least, the melancholy man, feeling his own end coming, searched for his own real continuances. I badly want him to have found them as he mentally circled the rings of the tree.
And on the fortieth day, after he’d circled the rootage of his earthly sorrows for the last time, the neighbor tore himself away and ascended.
“Кедер” © 2018 by Yordanka Beleva, excerpted from the short story collection of the same name. By arrangement with the author. Translation © 2023 by Izidora Angel. All rights reserved.