16 BILLION CROCUSES
I am looking for Totko Tenev in the village of Moghilino. I meet no one on my way from the railway station to the pub. It is only the smoking chimneys signaling life in the village.
Totko's wife keeps complaining about his leaving home and she asks me to talk to him.
"He has become a goatherd, can you imagine this?! He is putting his flock out to pasture, milking the goats and making cheese. To cap it all, he lives with some village girl. Please, help him! He doesn't even want to listen to me!"
Is Totko Tenev in trouble and does he really need my help? Is he so defeated? Can I help him up on his feet again? I am racking my brain for answers to these questions after the conversation with his wife. His escape might be another case of "Paul Gauguin's syndrome". This piece of psychiatry jargon refers to those men who leave their families after being married for a long time. On the other hand, could anybody compare the village of Moghilino with the fabulous islands in the Pacific Ocean where Paul Gauguin created his unique paintings?!
At the institute, Totko Tenev is the nicest person to be with. He has a broad childlike smile. His face is wrinkled but his eyes were amiable and full of life. Totko is short and thin, his figure slightly stooped. He gives the impression of being physically tired, but when he needs to stand up for himself, his whole being gets animated in no time. Totko's perseverance - as well as the gentle expression on his face - prompts his opponents to act naturally, to strip away their masks, and abandon the demagogy cloaked in a shroud of verbosity.
At the institute, we study the human brain. There are a wide range of specialists: doctors, biologists, engineers, mathematicians, and sociologists. Totko Tenev is a philosopher - as well as a man of letters - who has published some marvelous poems. We are trying to discover the secrets of human brain, of its sixteen billion cells that never reproduce themselves, unlike the cells of other organs. The brain cells are irreversibly lost. Every day hundreds of cells die and, as a result, a man's life is gradually coming to its end. Sometimes we think the research as being beyond our abilities. However, we keep doing it because we want to penetrate the mystery of the human being.
I view my meeting with Totko Tenev in two ways. On the one hand, I want to fulfill my obligation to his wife. But on the other hand, he is a real discovery! Totko is at the climax of his career. His books are selling like hot cakes, but they are inveighed against. During the Communist regime, his books were occasionally stopped from being published. Still, his avid readers cannot be denied! His poems are so popular that they are talked about far and wide. That's why it was difficult for me to even imagine that he is defeated. He had once shared with me:
"I feel as if I am covered in sticky filth, in mould. When I cast my mind back to what has happened to me over the years, my heart sinks and I have this lump in my throat. I am forty-five years old and the times are at a stage that are so contradictory that it will take us ages to figure out their nature. Scientists and politicians argue endlessly over the nature of the age we are living in. Had I might have not even lived?! One should not aspire to absolute freedom or absolute power. They cannot actually exist! As a matter of fact, this is the perverted essence of the times we lived in. The one who strives for absolute power is not aware of the damage caused by depriving others of their opportunity to take on part of the responsibility. Power means responsibility. A man who is after absolute power gradually deprives himself of people sharing the same views. He starts living in a world of ruthless loneliness and painful narcissism. As for absolute freedom, it cannot be attained either. The one who strives for absolute freedom has to deprive others of their freedom. However, people have an eternal longing for freedom and consequently, they would never let somebody else take possession of the part they are entitled to. They will fight for it and in the end will turn into a slave the one who has tried to take it away from them. The times we are living in have covered us in mould; they are dirting us. I want to get rid of all these years! I want to purify myself!"
And he is struggling. Is his escape far from the madness of the crowd a way of struggle, too? It might be, I do not know. Thousands of questions are troubling my mind on the way from Sofia to Moghilino until I open the door of the village pub.
It is hot inside. I know all the villagers. I am familiar with their nicknames which reflect - I should say quite properly - their characters, their past lives, something they have done, a pride, or a stain that have been running in the family for generations on end. I expect that I would see them all in the pub, and indeed here they are: Zahari the Petty Liar, known for telling petty lies; Mirtcho the Wet, always considerably drunk; Slavi the Miser, famous for his stinginess - who as usual - is waiting for somebody to buy him a drink. When I enter the pub, everybody falls silent.
"Where can I find him?" I ask about Totko.
"Who? You mean the Wise Man?"
And they immediately start talking - all at once, their words full of praise and admiration for what he is doing. He helps them with a piece of good advice, a kind word or a fair judgment. Totko is very hard working. Within four weeks, he repairs an abandoned cabin in the woods. He buys a flock of goats, learns how to breed them, and how to put them out to pasture. Totko is milking the goats and making dairy products. I buy a round. While drinking, the village people go into detail about Totko and the girl he is living with.
Her name is Sevda. She is called to the pub and together we head out of the village. She is slender and agile, with long blond hair topped with a small, colorful hand- knitted hat. Under the hat, her hair falls loose over her shoulders. Sevda is silent. This does not match her gestures full of life, her firm steps and her piercing green eyes looking at me with a slight sneer. The sun is sparkling, reflected by the white blanket of snow on the field. It is February. We are walking down the road winding toward the Tundzha River and the chilly wind pierces our bodies. Sevda's step are light and calm. I am not accustomed to chilly weather. While walking beside her, I am heavily muffled up in my thick coat.
"Do you help him with the goats?" I ask Sevda.
"Yes, I do." She answers. "He is reading and writing a lot. Look here, all these books are for him. I've borrowed them from the library."
Sevda pats a large bag as colorful as her hat. I take the bag in an attempt to demonstrate chivalry although it is a bit late. We cross the old shepherd's bridge. The house of Totko Tenev can be seen on the other bank of the river, perched on the hilltop. It is not a very high hill. It is stripped of vegetation; crumbly rocks are at its bottom followed by scarce shrubs and thorn-bushes. A blanket of snow, as clean as a child's tear, glitters up the hill. On the very crown, there are five oak trees magnificent with their snowcapped heads. The oak trees are the guardians of the small cabin.
Sevda stays near the flock at the foot of the hill. There are some twenty goats. She calls them by name: "Katia, Rossy, Silvy". Whenever she hollers a name, a goat raises its head in the direction of the girl's voice. It stops poking at the small sticks in the snow and takes a step toward its mistress. The chimes of the bells on the goats' necks lend an air of festivity to the winter silence hanging low over the place.
Totko is standing among the oak trees; his figure small and stooped. I think he has come among the people from the village of Moghilino to confess his sins and to show repentance. Still, his tiny little figure seems to me majestic. He has a strange explanation of everything to do with the human soul. In his poems he makes an analysis of human actions, penetrates deeply into the essence of human nature, and is far ahead of the scientists. In the institute, we have modern apparatus; we carry out many experiments. We conducted inquiries, investigations, and sociological surveys; but have we ever discovered something that really mattered?! The essence of human beings is still shrouded in mystery, as impenetrable as ever. When we think we are coming close to the secrets of human brain, seldom have we found beauty and elevation of thought. Violence and evil are more vital, more assertive. They thrust their way forward more easily in the human nature. The striving after supremacy over one's neighbor leaves its deep mark. Nevertheless, the most desirable path to be followed by the human race is the path of beauty and friendship.
I approach the cabin among the oak trees.
"Be careful, be careful!" Totko shouts. "You haven't learned how to climb properly to the top of the hill."
I look around; Totko is laughing. At the foot, among the goats stands Sevda. The hill echoes to the soothing sound of the bells. I hand the bag with the books to Totko. Inside his small house, I feel all cozy. He treats me to some fresh goat cheese; I have not tasted fresh goat cheese since I was a child. Some sheets of paper, filled with his large handwriting, are scattered on the table. They contain his new poems and Totko reads them to me. In the corner of the room, there stands a large iron box full of sand with hundreds of candles inside. Totko lights them as soon as we enter the room. The fire is blazing in the wood-burning stove, and the whitewashed walls reflect playfully the flames of the candles. Outside in front of the cabin, I notice a strange piece of equipment. A wheel from a horse and cart is fixed to the tiptop of two-meter-high pole; Totko has the wheel spinning around. I cannot make it out clearly and my mind is fixed on the mysteries of the lighted candles and the wheel from a horse and cart.
"Can you see the gleams of the candles?" Totko asks.
"Yes, I can," I answer.
"In the science of man, there's something depraved, something extremely vulgar!" Totko said. "Up till now, scientists have focused all their efforts on exploring the dark sides of the human consciousness; on the brute, destructive force of man. Superiority and perfection were studied eagerly was superiority over one's neighbor. In the Middle Ages, in the overcrowded temples, below the icon of Jesus Christ, thousands of lighted candles shone with intermittent, blinking light. Today we can reproduce this same light by means of sophisticated apparatus and we call it photo stimulation of the cerebral cortex. After having stared at the flickering candles for hours on end, those wretches whose brain cells were affected by overexcitement had epileptic fits. Then the man of God from the pulpit, a representative of the Holy Inquisition, would raise his hand menacingly over the human being lying flat on the stone floor and utter the ominous words that the Devil had taken possession of both his body and soul. The poor wretch was destined to die, destroyed in the name of Jesus Christ. In the old books, I came across a similar thing that was once practiced on our native land. When young men were selected as soldiers, they were made to stand under a pole with a wheel from a horse and cart attached to it with the sun in their faces. You looked at the pole, didn't you? I have fixed it outside."
"Yes, I saw it," I answer.
"As soon as the wheel starts going round in a circle," Totko went on, "the sunlight becomes intermittent. The young men would stand under the pole for as long as they could endure being exposed to this peculiar form of photo stimulation, or unless they would go into convulsions. Those who succeeded in bearing the ordeal became warriors- thus strong and deserving respect men. Those who failed were declared unfit and ill, people of inferior quality. Over the centuries science, in turn, showed no interest in them. Can you imagine the severity of such a selection process? Selection, whose criteria are brute force and stamina. But there is beauty within the weak, too. Sometimes it is even more valuable, more human. The history of the world has confirmed it many a time. Theories, doctrines and parties came into existence in a society where the depraved idea of absolute freedom and absolute power was being applied. From their pulpits, they all pointed a finger at those who were weak, who disagreed with the system. This resulted in their being sentenced, imprisoned and killed. People with unhealthy ambitions forced others into facing the sun, and if those others disapproved of the theory, if they refused to change their name and family, they were declared inferior. 16 billion brain cells are given to each one of us! They are our essence. They are the one and only universe we hold within ourselves. I think we will succeed in penetrating the mysteries of brain when we leave its development to Mother Nature, to her laws, which are laws of beauty and harmony. There are a lot more things I do not quite understand, but there is one thing I know for sure: this is the only path for us to follow. Come, come with me outside. I want to show you something!"
The sun is setting. A biting wind blows, lifting a blanket of snow low above the ground.
"Look down toward the river!" Totko says.
At the foot of the hill, the goats are digging the snow. Sevda is hollering, "Sonya, Lena, Betty..." The goat pen is right behind the cabin and the girl is driving the flock home.
"Can you see the crocuses?" Totko asks, with a broad smile on his face.
How could I fail to notice the beauty of the crocuses on my way up?! There are billions of crocuses scattered all over the hill, as if lighted candles in the snow.
"There are 16 billion crocuses here, as many as the brain cells!" Totko is laughing.
"We must protect them. Look, even the goats have learned not to trample them down!"
It is a strange dance; a rite. Both the girl and the flock are zigzagging up the hill. They are dancing in order not to crush even a single crocus. Looking at the path I was following on my way up, I see huge black holes: my footprints smashed hundreds of crocuses.
I say goodbye to Totko and Sevda, and climb down to the river. I am walking on tiptoe so as not to trample even a single crocus. These 16 billion crocuses are unique and unbelievably beautiful! Their numbers have to stay intact!
Totko Tenev is standing at the top of the hill. Near the river I turn round, see his broad childlike smile, and wave goodbye. He is a real wise man! This is what I am going to tell his wife.
© Dimitar Niagolov