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Anton


The house was old. Its windows facing a tangle of elder trees, nettles and hawthorn bushes, looked threatening. A pungent cloud of gadflies often spewed from the cracks between the bricks, then the golden belies of the insects, full of sun and poison, hid in the shadows to conceive new little gadflies in the dark, far from the hot well trodden earth, unlike the lizards that conceived their young near the paths of sheep and cows. I loved that house, its two empty rooms like cross children after a squabble.

That was my grandfather's home. He had been dreaming of getting rich all his life. The building, a gloomy and hulking pile, gave rise to unhealthy gossips in the pub, and he, smiling maliciously, dropped hints at the big money he was making. His dreams of opulence ended between the boards of his coffin that I accompanied to the graveyard, padding across the field by my grandmother's shadow.

My grandfather's dreams had edged into my nightmares. Days on end, I woke up stewing in my own juice, sifting the possibilities that could become my life. I dreamt of the man because of whom women would hate me, the one who would bring me where I wanted to be. So far, I had always achieved what I wanted.

It was hot in my grandfather's house.

There, the sun melted the grass and died in the evening. It was so hot that I thought: Anton, yes, Anton. I knew how slow and dull he was, I had memories of him from the time we studied in the primary school of the village - a tall boy, sitting at the last desk in the middle row, the dunce of the class I used to make fun of. Whenever our maths teacher examined him he gaped at the blackboard, his lips twitching and colorless. He could catch anything that walked, crawled, or flied. I had seen him many times in the schoolyard, a silent shadow, glued to the bark of a linden tree; then he jumped and a lizard, a sparrow or a grass snake writhed in his hands. Anton, I said to myself.

At the time when we still lived in my grandfather's house and grandfather was a man as enormous as the hill nearby, in the evening Anton slunk into our yard, and then his long thin body stuck to the big bough of the pear-tree. He could see me in my room from his precarious perch. He stared dropping his gaze as I whispered, "Go away"; his blue eyes slow and foolish. I asked him what he wanted and he did not answer; just stared on, mute, as if he faced the blackboard in the classroom. Once I took off my nightgown, I took it off very slowly as he perched on that branch, immobile, gasping, choking. On the following morning, I found a birdcage in front of the door with a brightly colored sparrow in it. My grandmother who was a small woman, shorter than grandfather's shoulders, given to spinning interminable yarns about everything she'd seen, said the bird was a nightingale - a good thing we should give crumbs to. She asked me how that little darling had landed here, in our yard.

In the evening, Anton was again up on that big branch, but I didn't take off my nightgown and he stared on, dumb, obedient. I didn't know if he remained the whole night in the pear tree. However, in the morning, there was a jar full of motley butterflies at our front door. Grandmother said they gobbled the leaves of the cabbage and she crushed all of them with a stone - one after the other, turning their wings into small dirty specks of death on the tiled path in front of the house. At noon, I beckoned Anton to come. I didn't speak to him, just waved my hand. He was wild, he lived with his father who brewed the best brandy in the village, and was constantly drunk and staggering. Anton's mother had left the two of them - no woman in her right mind would stay in a dying village with the snakes, and a river that had run dry.

It happened many years ago, but I remember the day very well.

"Come here," I had told Anton but he didn't obey. He ran away noiselessly like my grandfather's dog, an enormous beast, treacherous like his master. It did not bark as it bit your leg, and would not let go until grandfather yelled, "O-oh!" But he never said anything before you wailed with pain and a puddle of blood oozed out of your wound. Anton, like grandfather's dog, stalked you noiselessly like the shadow of a collapsing stone that would hit your knee right at the place where your sores had just healed. I knew he was shadowing me, I could feel his breath, but perhaps that was the groan of the sun that had hit the nettles. I sensed he was near as I walked along the path by the dry river, the grass around me knee-deep, as hard as granite.

I reached the old water mill that had been dead for over a century. In the past, it had made grandfather's family rich, but now its roof had fallen in, and on the ancient tiles, an army of lizards basked in the sunshine - some as big as my arm, others thin like cigarettes. The walls were overgrown with weeds and nettles. I walked on catching a glimpse of a sparrow that tried to find a perch in the shadow. In fact, I knew it was not the sparrow and it was not the sun that made the tree rustle. It was Anton. When the tangle of briar bushes became impenetrable in front of the dead water mill, I stopped and waited for him.

I didn't say anything. He crept out of the shadow, a big boy with tousled blond hair and blue eyes that followed me, two savage dogs that did not bark, but sank their teeth into your leg until grandfather shouted "O-oh!" He never shouted before your blood made a small puddle on the ground. I didn't have to tell Anton not to budge. He was immobile, pressing his back against the wall, paying no attention to the nettles. I touched his dirty flannel shirt and kissed him - I had never kissed a boy before, but I had seen how it should be done in the films on the TV. It did not feel good, his lips were hard, slightly open under mine, and I was not impressed.

...Anton, I said to myself now, Anton.

Back then, grandfather brought the cage with nightingale to the pub, and drank two brandies - one for the cage, the other for the bird. Cage and bird remained in the pub - Tancho, the pub-keeper, was a Turk who loved to hum under his breath, but when he got drunk he sang at the top of his big voice, shouting himself hoarse in his Turkish language we did not understand. Tancho loved the bird, too, and gave it millet and dead flies on a sheet of coarse paper.

After that I went to live in Pernik and Anton remained in the village. There was no one to ask how things with him were going - my grandfather, the black heap of muscles, had gone to heaven to keep mum there. He left grandma his portrait drawn by our village painter - a huge portrait on which you saw grandfather's big moustache and his eyebrows, weighing like a curse on the wall of the only room that still had his bed in it. A week after grandfather died, grandmother followed suit to comfort him and the other dead folks with her interminable tales. Often in the evenings, it seemed to me I heard the crumbling bricks talk in her soft voice about the dry river, about the nymphs that hid under the beds of faithless wives and in the old coats of their drinking husbands.

 

* * *

 

"I want you to whitewash my grandpa's house," I said.

I was in Anton's yard - a neglected and desolate patch of land. His perennially drunk, meek father had gone to meet his maker leaving behind his jalopy and a couple of old automobile tires. Anton's yard was a meadow overgrown with weeds his father had not had time to mow. Their shabby hut had not been whitewashed either.

There was a meager garden of tomatoes and peppers by the well jutting out amidst the wasteland of weeds and thick dry grass. Anton stood in the shadow of the gnarled pear tree, the same one his quiet drunk father used to love so much. The poor man used to sleep in its shadow, stripped to the waist, sprawled out on the ground, long and thin like a snake.

"I want you to whitewash my house," I repeated. Anton was naked from the waist up, his disheveled blond hair almost entirely bleached by the sun, his chest like a pool of brown water – the only pool had run dry in the district. A young Turkish woman popped out of the dilapidated hut. She was tall, lithe like lightning, barefoot, and she wore loose shorts that hid almost nothing of her buttocks. She was a slim Turkish girl in a white T-shirt. She pushed me, glared furiously at Anton, and snarled in Bulgarian, "He won't whitewash your house. Go away!"

At that moment, I glimpsed a cage of rusty black wire and a bright colored sparrow in it under the eaves of the hut. If my grandmother was here, she would tell me that the bird was a nightingale, but now she was probably chatting away with an old friend of hers in heaven.

Anton did not look at the Turkish girl, he didn't say anything; he left her and followed me, the heat plunging into his shoulders, short transparent hairs sparkling like gold on his skin. The Turkish girl rushed forward, wrapped her arms around his waist and tried to lug him back to the old automobile tires, to the shabby yard, at the far end of which odd iron pieces were jumbled together in a rusty heap: pairs of tongs, roofing irons, mudguards. The Turkish girl tugged at Anton's hair, but he ignored her, then he pushed her away and followed me, tall, slim, his face like a white nest of birds in the heat. The Turkish girl let him go and shouted out a few words, shrilly, angrily in her language. He did not turn to look at her.

Suddenly, she caught up with me and without saying a word, hit me hard with her fist in the face. I staggered. She clutched at my T-shirt and bit my neck. It hurt so much that I thought I'd die. I saw my blood oozing out of me, dripping down my rosy T-shirt. The soft cotton cloth turned red, sodden and slippery. I had been dying a minute or perhaps an hour, feeling the throbbing hole her teeth had dug into my skin. Anton pushed her away, shoved her down then took my hand, and we walked out of the yard under the red sky, in the heat, through weeds and nettles to my grandfather's house and his portrait on the wall.

I took Anton to one of the empty rooms.

The walls were naked, and the bricks babbled away, "You are bleeding. That Turkish girl busted your nose. She was about to gnaw through your neck. Your throat is sopping wet with blood." In fact, my grandmother was there skulking behind the walls, terrified I'd lose all my blood, but I didn't give a damn about her right now.

I saw Anton's shoulders, the golden hairs piercing his skin, and when I kissed them I smeared blood all over him, on his golden shoulders, on his chest, on his stomach, and for a moment I thought my grandmother was right. I was losing my blood. It was so beautifully losing it that I felt like I was walking on air. Was it because Anton was thawing out under me, or because I my grandfather was there, watching from his grave? The house was mine now.

I felt I was hungry, and I was not bleeding any more. Anton lay by my side, all smeared and soiled as if someone had been tearing him apart, and he was bloody and terrific. He was looking at me, quiet, smiling. I brought a loaf of bread; I had nothing but bread here, but in the shadow of my grandfather's house, just behind the portrait with his huge moustache, sorrels grew. Anton and I ate the bread and a whole basket of sorrels. There were some other weeds, tasting bitter as we ate, but we gobbled them down, too. I guzzled the food. We both ate and choked on bread and sorrels in the yellow heat, and all the bricks crumbled before my eyes, but I didn't care about them. When we ate the last bitter weed in the basket I kissed Anton again. My kisses slowly, carefully cleared away the blood that had splashed all over his body, even on his knees.

He went to buy another loaf of bread and pick more sorrels, or maybe pick the sun from the sky for me. I didn't care what I was going to eat; I waited for him, I had to clean heaps of splashes from him, from his shoulders and legs, to make his golden hairs shine for me. He brought bread and that birdcage I had noticed under the eaves of his house – a tangle of rusty iron wire and a brightly colored sparrow in it, a panicky little bird that peeped and chirped like mad for no reason at all.

At dawn, before we fell asleep, I saw the silhouette of that Turkish girl, slim like a rope that had bitten me. Anton and I lay on the floor of the room. The night was hot like boiling tea, and we lay naked in the dust, which pulsated with the twitter of the sparrow in the cage. I saw the Turkish girl, pressing her nose against the dirty windowpane, a black shadow that stood there without attempting to hide, staring at me, or maybe at Anton, or maybe she was not looking at us at all, just waited there pushing her face against the window. I felt terribly jaded after eating so much bread, sorrels, and bitter weeds. I must have fallen asleep.

I woke in the afternoon, and the Gypsy girl was not there any more.

Four more days I lived off bread, sorrels, and Anton. The sparrow drilled the heat with its shrill twitter; maybe the cage was too narrow for it, or maybe it was starving. The wind smelled of grasshoppers, of birds and dry rivers. I knew wanted big cities, nice cars and a man who'd make all women hate me.

There were no more sorrels behind grandfather's house.

"I going to Pernik tonight," I told Anton.

I left him sprawled on the cement floor in the room with the sparrow which was sleeping on the floor of its cage, so thin and emaciated it had stopped tweeting.

There was no water and I rubbed my chin and chest with the pink T-shirt that had absorbed much of my blood after the Turkish girl bit me. In front of the house, I saw a big ball of black and red threads, and a thick tuft of black hair hanging on a branch of a walnut tree. My grandmother who was probably talking to the clouds in heaven would have remarked that all Turks in the village practiced black magic. I did not believe in magic. I wanted to kiss Anton's big shoulders before I left, but my thoughts went elsewhere. I knew I was going to have a brand-new car, a man, a lake, and maybe a horse.

When I entered the room Anton was not there. The dust on the floor still kept the outlines of his shoulders, but why should I care about vague outlines in the dust? He had not taken the rusty birdcage with the sparrow in it. The bird had obviously cheered up and was chirping angrily to the sunrise.

 

* * *

 

I loved the heat of July, the immobile stars and the bricks whispering in my grandmother's voice. I did not believe in Turkish magic, black or whatever, I did not believe in red threads twisted into a knot together with a tuft of black hairs. I had finally found a buyer for my grandfather's house, in which only his portrait still hung on the wall. I wanted to have a look at the rooms before I sold them. I hoped I could find a way to push up the price if I pointed out that the building had concrete floors.

It was autumn, there were no green leaves. The nettles had buried their seeds in the ground and jutted out brown, motionless, under the dry elder trees. The windows were still whole. Only the one, against which the Gypsy girl had pressed her face, was shattered, and a faded piece of pink cloth had been forced inside the room. I did not fear magic, black or pink alike. I crossed the threshold that smelled of nights, of Anton and dust. There was a rusty birdcage on the floor of the empty room. Startled, I came up to it. I saw a handful of bright colored feathers and a miniature skeleton of a bird - fine thin bones, as white and ethereal as gossamer.

 


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