So, her sister calls early one evening. Natashka is going to the cinema with some friends, she’s running around the apartment—nothing to wear—and her sister calls to tell her she’s marrying Branimir, they’re already looking for wedding rings. Nothing personal, she hopes she won’t get her wrong, because for Natashka he was only one of many. It’ll be good for her sister. Italian citizenship, health insurance, a pension later on, you need to think ahead about this stuff. She didn’t want to go back to Sofia, she’d found a suitable job as a programmer, it pays well . . . Natashka drops the phone. Suddenly she feels like she’s been punched in the gut, like she’s being cut in half, she slides down with her back against the wall. That’s how her parents find her—squatting next to the wall and sobbing. Her father carries her to the sofa, her mother runs to the kitchen to make a hot-water bottle and chamomile tea for her because everyone knows that a hot-water bottle and chamomile tea always help, tell us love, tell us what’s wrong. She tells them. They are obviously relieved, as long as she hasn’t been taken ill, then they realize. Nasty. If it’s your own sister or daughter doing it, what can you do, there’s no going back and it’s like you’re standing in front of a train hurtling at full speed, how do you stop it, can you, no matter how much you helplessly flap your arms around. Her father is pacing the living room, occasionally spreading his arms, so he reminds her of a big puffed-up bird.
These people, says Natashka in a hollow voice, she coughs, my sister and . . . people in general. It’s not like they’re cruel, it’s not like they consciously want to hurt someone, the problem isn’t even that they’re stupid. Their feelings are meager. They’re afraid to allow them, they protect themselves, otherwise they’d get hurt by their own vulnerability. When they sniff out someone who can’t hide, just doesn’t want to, they jump that person like piranhas, the smell of blood drives them crazy, ah, nonsense, nonsense, her father says. He slides his cup of tea along the table and his movements are precise as usual, he doesn’t spill a drop, first, you don’t know what’s happened, second, you haven’t heard the other side. Aha, first, second, mocks Natashka, have I said that Branko is innocent, I haven’t, her arm springs up and she wags her finger, as far as I am concerned, I won’t give a drop of blood to the piranhas, but her arm starts shaking and she forgets what else she wants to tell them, how exactly she is going to resist the piranhas. Her mother sneaks out, maybe she’s going to the kitchen to speak on the phone in peace with, who else, her sister.
And then Branko calls. It’s raining, he informs her morosely, he had to fly to Stockholm, he works in the marketing department of a big tour operator so he travels often, there’s no way it wasn’t raining there, the whole of Europe will be covered in puddles, like he’s going to be wading across Europe on foot, and here, she interrupts him, the sun is shining, the sky is blue, the clouds are white and feathery and what do I learn, you’re marrying my sister, congratulations. At first he doesn’t understand, he can’t hear her very well, she needs to repeat herself, you’re marrying my sister, yes, my sister, he starts laughing and, you know, you can tell from a mile off it’s a fake laugh. Is that what’s cooking, he says. I’m sure, Natashka continues, your mother likes her too, and I thought according to her no one was good enough for you, I was so dumb, now I’ve realized, I want to die laughing, ha, ha, ha! Branko is silent. And Natashka is silent. Have you slept with my sister, she asks him and gets so disgusted with herself that her whole body starts shaking, just tell me—yes or no, whatever I tell you, he starts slowly, would you believe me, she shakes her head, no, she whispers, no, that’s the thing, he says, from Stockholm I’ll come to Sofia, you won’t find me, she tells him. She can’t hang up right away, her finger is shaking and she can’t find the button, he is speaking, she is not listening anymore, unbearable, how is she going to live without hearing his voice. Her father watches her hands shake, turns around, puts the TV on, listens to the weather forecast, he’s scared of female hysteria and what does he expect—that she’ll start bawling and throw a fit, he’s wrong. As we said, not a drop of blood to the piranhas.
Her mother comes in, just opens her mouth, Natashka’s phone rings again. Her sister. She puts it on speaker so they can listen. Didn’t Natashka feel at least just the tiniest bit uncomfortable to paint her as a backstabber and a vulture in front of their parents, why wasn’t she ashamed of herself, didn’t they send her to Branimir so she could sort out her life, to be understood—with him, which they would never admit because they just wanted to get rid of her so she wouldn’t spoil their comfort with her misfortune, why was she playing the fool, she couldn’t stand the hypocrisy, because she, her sister, knew who the real vulture was. Natalia hated and despised men, she despised them from the bottom of her heart, she should admit it, if not in front of anyone else then at least to herself, it would be for her own good, men for her were only sexual objects until she had them under her heel, then she got fed up with them and had Branimir been within her grasp, she would’ve gotten rid of him and forgotten about him a long time ago, a simple example—that rock climber! What climber are you talking about, Natashka is taken aback, aha, you don’t even remember him, her sister spits out, when they were doing the insulation on the apartment and you flew out on the balcony to chat with him right away, how could you miss out on a man in sight, well, I was curious to see how he worked, Natashka mumbles, if he was an old bald guy you wouldn’t have been curious, then you went off to someone’s country house or some lake or something and he turned up in the middle of the night at the balcony door with a red rose between his teeth, oops, he goes, my mishtake, shorry, and dashes off. Here Natashka can’t take it anymore, she bursts out laughing and her sister maybe chucks her phone at the wall, and she’s usually super careful with gadgets.
She sees her parents’ scared looks, her laughter dries up, her pain can’t stand merriment, it jabs its bony finger in her stomach, you’re not going to laugh, you’re going to suffer.
That’s all we need, her mother says, you two fighting over a man, I’d understand if it were over property, not that we have any . . . but a man! She frowns at their demonstration of such bad taste. Let her have him, love, at least with you it’s clear that whoever you point your finger at will be yours, and what was his name . . . Branimir, her father helpfully interjects, has an illegitimate child, what, what, Natashka asks faintly. It might not be true, her mother whispers and looks over her shoulder so the embarrassing situation doesn’t reach strange ears, your sister suspects it’s his, she asked him straight, he changed the subject. It’s understandable, how would you tell your future wife that you have a child with someone else, a five-year-old boy, he didn’t hide him, he would pick him up from school, hold on, wait, Natashka says, it’s his friend’s child, he’s working in China on a five-year contract, it’s expensive for him to travel to Italy all the time, Branko is his godfather, I mean the child’s not the father’s, oh, my love, you’re so naive. What if he has ten more kids all over Europe and he’s their godfather, what if he’s already married somewhere, so now it turns out, Natashka interrupts her, he’s good enough for my sister and I can go hang, what are you going to do, her father asks. He yawns discreetly, he’s tired and he’s also thought things through, it doesn’t seem so dramatic, if everyone is alive and well, everything else will fall into place. I’ll call Veso, Natashka says, so he knows his wife is marrying someone else, her mother gasps, don’t you dare, just sit back and listen, Natashka advises her, you’ll hear about it, they might even end up on the international news.
She spins on her heel—aha! almost hits the ceiling, rushes through the rooms, goes out on the kitchen balcony. To get some air. Let her have him, love! As if he’s an umbrella. And it’s been like this all her life, all her life! the minute Natashka reaches for something, because her sister is younger, let her have it, but—that’s enough. But how can she put an end to it, how can she explain to them and if Branko and her sister . . . fine then, let them be happy, she looks up toward the bright, waxing moon and whimpers through gritted teeth.
Suddenly she’s startled by a knocking sound, it’s coming from the broom corner, it irritates her, it won’t let her focus, and some sort of vibration starts throbbing inside her, she cautiously goes to check, it could be a pigeon or . . . who knows, a rat, yuck, disgusting! One of the brooms. It’s bouncing as if with anticipation, its long wooden handle knocks against the wall, she grabs it and the broomstick slides between her legs, lifts her up gently and carries her over the railing. She barely manages to grab the metal rail and squeezes her eyes shut, terrified, the broom pulls her toward the sky, there’s a void below, her fingers are slipping. A man in an apartment across the street flings open his window, leans out and wails: I dooooon’t want to see suiciiiiides, I dooooon’t want to see suiciiiiides! He doesn’t want to see! And what about the things she doesn’t want, like this nutjob waking up the neighborhood so everyone can see her floating around in the ether on the broomstick. She lets go of the railing, tries to make herself comfortable; the broom circles, ascends sharply, but Natashka is an experienced driver, she taps it with her left hand to turn, kicks it with her heels and propels it toward the crazy guy, pointing the handle at his face, her hair blowing in the wind, and tells him in a quiet scary voice: shut up! Take your medication and go to bed right now! He retreats, gawping, shoo, shoo! he whispers and waves his arms as if shooing a chicken, but he closes the window and calms down.
I’ve had enough of anxious people, Natashka mumbles as she swishes over the roofs, enjoying herself, woo-hoo! she shouts and the stars blink, startled. And here—another problem—she’s freezing. It’s November after all and up there—oh my goodness! it’s so cold and she’s only wearing a thin sweater and jeans, she doesn’t know how to land the broom, how to stop it, the broom doesn’t feel like stopping, it wants to fly, it’s already carrying her toward the main road, lit up far below her like a Christmas garland, she panics, her teeth start chattering with cold and fear. Calm down, come on, she repeats to herself, there must be a way, she will find it, she will find it for sure before she drops onto the highway like an icicle, suddenly a rider on a broom rushes toward her. Oh, my goodness—a rider in a dark suit, blending with the night, they stop suddenly and take off their hood, it turns out it’s a woman, her graying hair is wrapped in a tight bun so it won’t bother her, hey! darling, she yells angrily, are you okay, Natashka wobbles her head, what’s true is true, she’s not okay. Squinting with annoyance, the woman points and a warm wave washes over Natashka, enveloping her like an eiderdown, pins and needles pricking her frozen fingers, th- th- Natashka tries, thanks, she exhales at last. I’ve seen some come out butt naked, for effect, the woman informs her, but at least they protect themselves from the elements, which I categorically do not agree with. If you take energy from space you need to give it back, and they don’t give a toss that the grass won’t grow somewhere afterward, metaphorically speaking. Natashka doesn’t get the “metaphorically speaking” part but realizes she’s being told off, I didn’t mean to, she mumbles, it was the broom. Everyone is good, the woman continues, at waking the raw energy, but do they think about what to do with it when they can’t control it, no, why would they, they just flap around the sky creating problems for people, as if it’s our job, saving lost little girls. I’m not your little girl, Natashka replies sulkily, what’s the big deal, are you too mean to help someone, your karma will improve, wow, the woman says, you’ve learned some words on top of being cheeky, and she throws her head back, starts laughing. A woman in her prime, a wrinkle here and there, she doesn’t hide her graying locks, she doesn’t care, she has confidence in herself, in her ability to pull through, we’ll see, we’ll see, Natashka mumbles almost inaudibly.
The truth is she doesn’t know what to do with all this. With her sister, with her skinny little shoulders, with her thin, feathery hair decorated with a bunch of ladybug clips, she smooths it out while her sister sleeps in her lap. They are sitting on the doorstep on a late summer afternoon, they’ve lost their key, exhausted from crying, her sister suddenly falls asleep and Natashka doesn’t dare move, she sees how the window across the road burns, fades, goes black, she’s all stiff, ages pass, nobody comes, she feels that if she ever stands up her body will fall apart but she doesn’t move, she is protecting her sister’s sleep, it’s been entrusted to her. Her sister who trusts unreservedly and believes, since she learned to add, that two and two always makes four, in all cases in life, two and two, it’s so simple . . .
A couple of riders jump out of the darkness, circle around just to check out the situation, wave to the woman in greeting, and disappear behind a cloud.
Sooo, she drawls, what could be the reason for this commotion, let me guess, love trouble, your sister’s involved, how do you know, Natashka becomes suspicious. Am I a witch, the woman says, or what, it’s all written in space, every story, thought, and feeling sit there in black on white, including nonsense. What do you mean nonsense, Natashka boils over, if your soul is filled with sorrow, or is this not allowed anymore, is it too embarrassing, do you never feel hurt inside, what do you do then, only clever stuff? The woman is silent. Right, she doesn’t like her, Natashka’s face crumples. She noticed a long time ago that whatever she says, does, it’s not just because something needs to be done, but to be liked, to be liked at any cost, and she tries, bends over backward, stretches herself according to other people’s standards, replaces herself with someone else, only to please, to be remembered, but here the trick is not working. She bristles under the cold stare of this woman, she spreads her inner quills to protect her pain, it’s hers and suddenly an epiphany strikes her, making her eyes water, she rubs them on her shoulder, she is embarrassed she’s being a wimp. She’s been afraid to start living with Branko, that’s it. They’re too close, as if from day one they were thrown at each other but that closeness doesn’t leave them any room to breathe on their own, to be themselves, and there—in a strange city, a strange language, strange people, she would cling on to him with all her helplessness, they would suffocate each other, they would come undone . . . Whereas her sister doesn’t worry about existentialities, she doesn’t believe in them, she finds a job, arranges her life . . . Arranges it because life is . . . the way it is. And Natashka realizes that no matter how bereft she feels right now, she is not on a desert island, there are people all around her, some even fly the skies at night, but the American fleet won’t come, nobody will come to save her miraculously from herself. She starts wringing her hands in frustration, that’s all the broomstick is waiting for, it jumps up, almost hitting her on the nose.
Imagine, the woman tells her, it won’t be true just yet but you need to start somewhere, so, imagine you’re holding the reins of your thoughts and feelings, you know what you want and what you can give someone, the main thing is to give without asking for payment, then sit down with him and have a calm conversation. Sitting on her broomstick in the dark blue sky among the stars, if Natashka reached out she could touch one, under the sparkling gibbous moon, it’s beautiful, having experienced it once, she’ll feel the pull to go up there again. If she builds up the courage. Her butt is numb, her legs are stiff, and this woman seems to be fine, she’s used to it. It’s easy for her to dole out advice, sit down, and have a calm conversation. If you’re that smart, Natashka says, do you know if Branko has slept with my sister, the woman nods, she knows. She doesn’t say a word. Tell me, come on, tell me, Natashka begs her, you’ll find out yourself, the woman says, when the time comes, and I, she says, have no right to interfere. That’s it. Mercy from a witch?—that’ll be the day.
At least she shows her how to land the broom, Natashka alights smoothly on her balcony and when she looks up the woman is gone. She heads toward the corner to leave her vehicle with the rest of the brooms but changes her mind, takes it to her room, leans it against the wall. A broom like any other, you’d never think . . . She touches it gently, feels the vibration, taps it, the vibration stops and she puts it in the wardrobe, hides it carefully with her clothes. This broomstick deserves care. Together they’ll have to master the raw energy and any dimension they encounter.
From “Three Nights.” Copyright © by Lyubov Kroneva. Translation copyright © 2024 by Petya Pavlova. All rights reserved.