JUNE, THE COLONEL’S YOUNGEST DAUGHTER
Lying down in the hammock, suspended between the earth and the firmament, the old colonel liked to say:
“It’s only when you mix heaven and hell, is the best reality created, June! Christo comes straight from hell, you were raised in heaven! Your kids will be strong people! June, the colonel’s youngest daughter, was looking with fear at the man, who was trimming the tree branches with love, or turning up wildly, yet majestically, the earth in the garden with the spade. They seldom spent the weekends at the colonel’s, but, as soon as they arrived there, Christo threw himself all in the garden and it changed completely under his hands. When they were in town he liked to work on Sundays too; he was thirty-two and was a manager in a division of a multinational company with a budget bigger than the one of the country he was born and managed to wrest himself out from.
“There life is experienced, it is in your hands, and you can model it the way you want! Here, June, all the energy people have goes for survival. Other people model your life here. There you can be what you think you should be. And here you must be, at least ostentatiously, what the others expect you to be! Can you see the difference? It’s killing people!”
June, the colonel’s youngest daughter, was mincing next to her husband, tripping over her feet, all in sweat. She had that feeling, that she should have prevented that journey from happening. She failed, perhaps, because she did not want it. June wanted to learn what was imbedded in her children’s souls, because Christo was their father and she was the colonel’s youngest daughter.
Now she was following Christo in the weed-grown village cemetery. They were going to his mother’s grave.
“The dead, June, are here enemies too!
For the dead either good or nothing, the old colonel repeated, and June reminded Christo of it.
“Not now! Not here! For the dead – only the worse! Here the good that people do is hated the moment it appears! The most hated here are the good guys, the most respected – the bad guys!
Christo was walking with a furious anger, he did not pay attention to the fact that he trod on old graves and monuments. June was meandering after him, but trying to avoid one, was bound to step on another grave.
“Here, death, June is liberation from the burden of life! While there, death is a crowning moment.”
Christo gave a loathing kick to a bush, appearing on his way, when they reached his mother’s grave.
A cross. Made of wood.
His mother’s name was written on it with paint.
That was all.
Wild and savage.
Then she stared into his face and saw the tears.
“Men never cry, June! If you see a man cry, he is worthy of contempt!” The old colonel liked to say, lying down in the hammock, suspended between the firmament and the earth.
But Christo was standing between heaven and hell, she had to forgive him. She turned her eyes.
“I hate her, though I must love her. Mother.
He gave a sob and sat on the edge of the grave. She huddled in him, and he told her everything she wanted.
“There were countless men in her life. Bitch. My father knew everything about her adventures, but didn’t do anything. He was laughed at. The other children threw stones at me; I stalked them and beat them black and blue. When I grew up, I asked him – why don’t you chase her away? He said – that was the wife God chose for me, I love her – you have to think about your wife…Such suicidal meekness is possible only here! Once I even shrieked at her – you have no right to turn father into a laughing-stock! She said – how do you know he’s your father, you fool – and she giggled in a dirty way; then she explained it to me…She could make a lot of men happy, it was a sin if she didn’t do it…And she told me – may God give you a wife like me! I hated her, though I was supposed to love her. But how was I supposed to do that?! I can’t! It hurts!”
A sudden gust of wind appeared and whistled past their faces. June looked around scared, was it his mother’s soul?
It was only when they drew away that it occurred to her – they didn’t go to his father’s grave, did they? She did not dare ask, but there must have been some deep meaning to this, a meaning that she was not able to grasp now.
On their way back they stopped before a Thracian shrine, next to the cemetery. It was obvious that it had been dug in both with spades and an excavator alike. There were remnants of marble and ceramics…
“They have always been digging for treasures here”, he shook his head, smiling strangely. “And have always found something. The authorities have always forbidden it, fined some, but the people kept doing it. No archeologist set his foot here… The money they gave to build fences, to hire guards, was much more than the expenses for the archeological diggings. Do you understand the absurdity? You don’t, I shouldn’t have asked you…”
They entered the yard of his father’s house. His brother Nako lived here now. This primitiveness was somewhat strange to June – there were hens walking in the yard, two pigs were grunting and digging the earth out, three cows were feebly sticking their heads out of the cowshed, a sheep bleated sadly from somewhere. The stench was unbearable.
Two enormous black dogs snarled together and started at them, but the chains pulled them back and stopped them.
“Why don’t they let them loose?” June asked.
“It goes like this here!” Christo smiled spitefully. “It is the way people and animals live here. Otherwise they will bite!”
Nako and Velitchka, his wife, were waiting for them in front of the house. They felt uncomfortable and uncertain. Velitchka had hidden her hands underneath her apron. When they stopped in front of them, she put out only her right hand to shake hands with June. The American stared into the eyes of the Bulgarian. There was some fright in these eyes, something welling up inside. June sensed the smell of death, madness, hopelessness.
Nako looked like a trapper to her; she had seen trappers in the films about the Wild West, which she had always loved to watch.
While they were eating they kept silent. It surprised June – they hadn’t seen one another for more than 10 years, why were they silent? Don’t they have to say something to each other? Or, perhaps, they didn’t want to?
It was not until they all had finished their meals that Nako uttered one word only:
Christo started laughing so loudly and cheerfully; the way he laughed only in America. June looked at him startled.
“I am only asking. As a man to man. You are laughing!” Nako said embittered.
“Don’t we even have the right to ask any more?” Velitchka shook her head with a silent, cruel reproach.
“You, shut up!” Nako snapped at her and turned to Christo: “I’m only asking!”
“Brother, everything here is yours! Didn’t you understand?!” Christo spread his arms in despair.
“Well, I’ve had to ask, that’s the proper way to do it!” Nako’s broad face beamed; Velitchka turned and crossed herself unnoticeably.
“What century are you living in, brother?” Christo suddenly asked quietly.
Nako tapped the table. He took a drink and said sadly:
“I don’t know. I am a simple man.”
Christo laughed again but turned serious straight away:
“Don’t you dare excuse yourself like that?! It’s true that only the scoundrels, the block-heads and the fools stayed here. Only the ones that think they can steal everything!”
“Where do you put us in , Christo?” Velitchka asked unexpectedly peevishly.
“Do I know…” Christo shrugged his shoulders and pursed his lips. “What do you think?”
“I’d like you to tell us, so that we know! You, guys, keep coming here and telling us, what we are, how we should live, what we should do…” Velitchka was shaking her head. June sensed with all her being the hatred that woman had for Christo. She shuddered.
A hostile silence set in the room.
June, the colonel’s youngest daughter, was listening with an ever increasing interest, though she did not understand a word. She could tell by the growing tension that something important was going on. Something fatal. Suddenly Christo turned to June and started talking in English:
“Nothing is ever changing here! Our teachers were just like wardens in prison, never have I met such malicious and disgusting creatures. They hated everyone who tried to think for themselves. Our fathers supported them. Perhaps out of foolishness? Our fathers were evil out of fear; they dreaded the thought of any change at all. Their best argument was thrashing us; thus they thought they proved right. Brutal force. Mother was crying while beating me. Was it cruelty out of compassion? Nako hated them, but listened to them. He has been working his ass out for forty years and has achieved nothing?! Look at the pigsty he lives in!” with disgust, he showed around the room. “Like the Middle Ages!” Nako was looking at him with a straight face. He felt the English language – lacerating, lashing, just like a whip. As if gunshots were fired in the room.
Nako shivered at every word. He felt it like a threat, like the swishing sound of an axe over his head. He was looking at the danger with curiosity, as if he marveled at her, although he was afraid of it.
He had given in, June told herself, listening to Christo but looking at Nako. They were so different, those two. Complete strangers.
“Brother, did they tell you that we’re taking them to the states?” Christo asked cantankerously.
Velitchka gave a sob, stood up and caught at the table with both hands.
“It was them who wanted it!” Christo was talking with a fierce malice in his voice: “The have been admitted to the best American universities! If I don’t take them, they’ll come to America by themselves. It isn’t that they won’t make it, but it would take them more time and effort without my help. Their visas are ready, they are coming with us! Tomorrow!
Velitchka gave a scream, started wailing and swearing at life, fate, destiny and waved her hands helplessly - she began calling down curses on Christo.
“Shut up!” Nako said in a bored but authoritative voice.
“God strike him dead! God! Our merciful, orthodox God! May his soul be damned forever! May he have the hardest of lives! Plague on him! May he crawl all his life and his wife too, the cursed whore and his children, the damned scoundrels! And that damned America of his – may it go down to hell!” she was cursing, drawing back to the door. Suddenly she disappeared, as if she, herself, had fallen down the eternal pit of damnation, while begging the it to open its gates for Christo.
“No, Christo, I realized it in the end, no, you can’t live here by your honest labor”, Nako admitted in a suppressed voice. He was working up a piece of bread between his fingers. “I have always been honest until now, and see what I’ve got?! The kids are not only laughing at me, they started to hate me! They keep saying – it is uncle Christo we rely on, he is our savior; you are nothing, a mere nobody…”
Christo smiled satisfied; Velitchka’s voice was heard in the adjacent room.
“She’s talking. Over the phone with her daughter.” Nako pricked up his ears and carried on: “She’s asking her if it is true. Stupid!” He said that in a mocking way, but with a condescending, overt love.
Velitchka gave another scream; she set up a terrible howl, as if she were dying.
June, the colonel’s youngest daughter, quite frightened, caught Christo’s hand under the table; he turned to her and smiled.
“Well, Christo, alright”, Nako drop the glass down on the floor. “The children are coming with you, that’s clear. Velitchka and me are gonna die in a few years! Then what?
“What then?!” Christo smiled maliciously. “So what, brother?! That’s the end. The logical end, brother!”
“So, you say, that’s the end?! Is that right, brother?” Nako asked panic-stricken, he was about to stand up but gave it up and powerless, collapsed onto the chair: “The end! But, there have been people here from times immemorial? Haven’t you seen the Thracian shrine?!”
“Big deal!” Christo grunted out. “Thracian shrine! There are shrines, but there are no Thracians! That’s it, isn’t it?”
“No…” Nako shook his head: “We are still here, aren’t we?”
“How many are you?! What are you – your kids are running away from you as fast as they can?!” Christo asked with increasing bitterness.
“No!” Nako wailed once again. “Good or bad, we are here! What we’ve done is all we can! But what would follow us?”
“Bar’s closing!” Christo snapped his fingers.
“Why?” Nako asked.
“Because the proprietors are stupid!”
“Hey!” Nako straightened up menacingly.
“Brother, do you remember how mother’s own sisters envied her?” Christo leaned over the table. “We had been rich! Why?! Because we had two sheep more? They hated her deeply, didn’t they? Her own sisters! Do you remember?”
“Yes, I do”, Nako nodded and gave a sigh. “They poisoned them within a year.”
“Then?!” Christo asked triumphant. “Let alone the things they kept talking about her?! Though they were right to some extent, cause you know…”
“No, they were not!” Nako clenched his fists and dreamily uttered: “My mother was a beautiful woman! What a beauty! I can picture her even now! The most beautiful woman I have ever seen, that was she!”
“What about Velitchka?” Christo grinned ironically and winked at his brother.
“Forget about her!” his brother waved her hand disparagingly. “Mother was the real McCoy!”
“You are going to excuse her lovers next?!”
“Yes, why not! Beauty is no prey to judgment!” He waved his finger. “A beautiful woman must be loved!”
“What about Dad?! What are you gonna say about him?!” Christo whispered.
“He was happy in his own way! He loved her the way she was!” Nako smiled in ridicule. “Go on, you damn little judge!”
“Do you remember”, Christo said maliciously squinting his eyes, “Dad was more eager to be in the neighbors’ way, than put in order his own cellars or clean the basement! He did all sots of foolish things – he knocked down their stone walls, he destroyed their garlic at night…”
“That was correct. That was bad.” Nako agreed, and with glowing eyes, confessed: “I’m just like him!”
“Well, then? What does that mean?” now Christo was talking just like a prosecutor.
“It’s bad, I know”, Nako heaved, raised the glass from the floor, brushed it with his fat fingers and poured some wine. He was drinking thirstily, taking big swigs; his Adam’s apple was rising and falling.
“How is it possible that nothing remains here in this land of ours, Nako? We steal everything, destroy everything! Nothing has remained of those who lived before us! Why? We don’t build anything to stay. Why? The man dies and the house with him. In ruins. The land remains only. I keep looking at the houses – the owner kicks the bucket, his house soon in ruins, the yard running riot – it’s as if no one had ever lived there.”
“You are damn right!” Nako grinned and scratched his head. “The guy dies and it’s as though he had never lived…”
“You couldn’t even build a church, and you claim you are Christians! When we were driving home, I stopped to look at it – it’s so rickety I can knock it with a single push. I peered inside –it’s all over birds’ dung! Is it where you prey?”
“I haven’t set my foot there for ten years, I don’t know”, Nako shrugged his shoulders with an evil indifference.
“The community center is in ruins, as if a bomb had fallen! You have stolen the roof tiles; there isn’t a single stone there!”
“I took the steps only and broke them into gravel”, Nako admitted and grinned.
“Well then, tell me, don’t you deserve the coming of the end?”
Nako sighed loudly and asked cunningly:
“And you, how did you manage to bud in there? You left flat broke!”
“It was difficult, brother”, Christo sighed. “But I said to myself – If I don’t start to play the game, I’ll take my life, but I won’t come back here.”
“My wife says that if all the kids go to America, she will hang herself!” Nako said, and then he looked around, listened up and stood up.
June saw his powerful back, covering the door for a moment.
When he was back in a few minutes, his face was white as a sheet. He sat down, sighing heavily, poured some wine into their glasses, and pushed the glasses into their hands. He poured some wine onto the floor, a thin trembling trickle, and said:
“God have mercy on Velitchka! She was a crusty one, but we’ve had some life together!”
“What?!” Christo got startled, the glass spilt its contents onto his white T-shirt, he put it on the table quickly and stood up obviously frightened.
“She hanged herself. On the lean-to. Let’s bury her, so you can go to this America of yours.” Nako took the knife from the shelf and made for the door.
Christo followed him, and behind them, horrified, trailed June. She did not understand what had happened, but she sensed it was something horrible and frightful.
When she stood up before Velitchka’s hanging body, she heard the voice old of the colonel, lying in the hammock, suspended, just like the body here, between the earth and the sky: “Christo, my girl, is coming straight from hell!”
June, the colonel’s youngest daughter, suddenly stretched both her arms towards the sky, heavy with clouds, and started crying wildly, in the Bulgarian way, that is inconsolably.
© Stoyan Valev