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Men and Snakes

I felt good in the room that faced the wall of the old house decorated with sculptures of snakes and half-naked men. When my translation didn’t go well I stared at their taut muscles. Yet, I was quite happy when Stavro visited my office. He was a queer fish; he maintained that the gloom inside him blended well with the dusk in the room. He said he was not afraid of death in my office. In the shadows of the men on the opposite wall he felt he was a man himself. He admitted he was scared of his mother, who wholeheartedly disapproved of me. He feared loneliness and headaches; he hinted he was afraid even of me, but he locked the door and kissed my lips.

In the evenings when we sat together in front of the low-spirited television he said he could love me only in the office, before these men and snakes. It was dark when I translated short stories, the characters in them gliding over chutes of twilight around dictionaries that knew everything in the world worth knowing. While I translated, Stavro sat by my side, watching, my scarf wrapped around his neck. At times, he grabbed my hand. We did not make love, but he locked the door all the same. We held hands, his fingers cold like the blue wind, his eyes lonelier than the empty tramways. Often he let me go and wrote rhymes, black poems on scraps of paper which he thrust into my pockets, into my stockings, into the only vase I had. He put his best poems on my heart to make me feel them the way they deserved. I seldom read them. They were heaps of words, no commas, no paragraphs, verbs, interspersed with capital letters, which didn’t make clear if Stavro loved me or he had a stomachache on account of his fear of death. He left his poems in my shoes, glued them onto the walls and dedicated them to the part of my body he loved best. I said that made me hate poetry.

He stuck his ear to my heart and listened, his cold skin and the snakes entering my bones. He and the corners in my office despised the characters in the short stories I translated. He thought I loved them more than him.

Stavro’s mother said her son was going mad in that office which she had found for me. When I worked outside Sofia, Stavro waited for me in the cafÄ opposite and took me to dinner at his parents’ place. His mother, the famous psychiatrist, sat at the far end of the table, away from his father, a famous psychiatrist, too. He chose one of the corners to which light had almost no access at all. Stavro had told me his father slept in a separate room, the one with heavy velvet curtains hanging either side of the huge window I admired so much. Dr. Yaneva, the mother, switched on a powerful lamp to illuminate her splendid hair. She often gave me brochures on various pomades, moisturizers and hair softeners, which I translated into Bulgarian for her.

Stavro told me once he detested female hair and asked me to cut mine as short as possible. His parents had provided me with an apartment above their own, and Stavro complained that he could feel the light of his mother’s hair pierce our floor and creep onto the carpet. Like his father, he obstinately had his hair cut every ten days and shaved meticulously, his beard wicked and vindictive on account of his desire to totally erase it. He had chosen thick curtains for his windows, of purple brocade. Occasionally, he woke me in the dead of night when ghostly taxies whizzed along the streets, and said, ‘I love you’. That meant he wanted me to go to my office to love me. There, the characters in the stories lay between the pages of my dictionaries like dry leaves in a herbarium. Sometimes we ran twice a night to my office, to the twilight and the half-naked men.

Our dinners were quiet, Stavro and his father withdrawn in the shadow of the curtains. I wondered how it was possible for them to find their mouths with the forks in that darkness. I preferred to remain flooded by the light of Dr. Yaneva’s splendid hair, although she constantly interrogated me about the cheese and the kind of sex I liked, what my phobias were and what I thought of the Minister of National Health, a man I didn’t know at all, a fact that bitterly disappointed her. Once, Dr. Yaneva and I went shopping together. After our first attempt at that, I came to hate all fashion centers. She was a Napoleon there and made a point of getting the highest compliments on everything she had, including the wart on her elbow, an item she desperately tried to eradicate. She had already spent a fortune on that. I told her how beautiful she was but that was not enough. I failed to convince her she was breathtaking and I developed a violent headache instead. I thought the woman’s resentment against me stemmed from my inability to explain things to her. She inquired after my former boyfriends, emphasizing that they all posed a major threat to her son, whose heart I was bound to break. She asked me what I thought of her husband, of whom I actually thought nothing. In spite of that we had a cup of coffee. At a certain point, she sobbed and uttered a spiral of words that got wet and glistened like diamonds. She said she had come across a weird text amongst the medical papers of her husband’s patients. In that text, her husband often mentioned my name. There were diagnoses of psychotic disorders as well, but the fact he had written ‘breasts’ in Latin made her suspect that her husband sadly had fallen for an inappropriate person. She asked me not to come to dinner at their place any more.

In the evening Stavro’s father came to my office and asked, staring at the curtains of purple brocade, if he could please wait for his son here while I translated a short story about two drunks who attempted to drown in the swimming pool of the woman they were both in love with. He said my office was a beautiful place, so quiet, and so dark. Then he sat on a stool and waited while the two drunks were out boozing, savoring the vintage, making no mention of the woman who had caught their fancy.

The psychiatrist sat on his stool covered with purple brocade, staring rigidly above my head. After half an hour of that he rose, said, ‘See you later, Sanya,’ and left me like the characters in the short story who didn’t get drowned because their wine was much better than that woman, because they could live perfectly well without her.

Then Stavro came and said he wanted to kiss me, which he didn’t do. Like his father, he sat on that stool and stared at exactly the same spot, somewhere above my head. At a certain point, he produced a bottle and drank from it. I knew Stavro was no good at drinking. He coughed, then softly shed tears like half-naked men, like snakes that crept lovingly to me. I did not ask what the matter with him was. He had cried like that once because he loved me. His love was stronger than him, he said, and he didn’t know what to do with it. Tears turned his body into thin dusk, into a cloudy sky under my fingers.

‘I’ll move into your place if you want me to,’ Stavro said, his words staggering through half-dried tears. ‘I can’t stand my parents.’

He touched my hand, his fingers cold with the night behind the curtains. I love you, said the night in his fingers. I didn’t know what I could give him when he added he was hungry.

He looked hesitantly at the hamburger bun which remained from my lunch, then asked me to hold the stale slice of bread.

‘You’ll always hold my food in your hands. When you touch it, it becomes delicious, delicious, delicious!’

I touched an apple, an old croissant and a chocolate. He ate them all, loved me more than the world again. There was no more food I could touch. He kissed me and said he wanted to sleep in the old easy-chair under the purple curtain. I should be around, breathing all the while, because if I went away his stomach hurt, just below his ribs, on the left hand side.

That night I slept in the lumber room. There was the original bed in which Stavro’s mother spent the night after she earned her Ph.D. When time came for me to go to the bed of his mother’s Ph.D. thesis, he pressed himself, cold like the book about the two drunks, against my back.

I was hungry, so hungry I could eat the old stool, but I could not extricate myself from his embrace. He believed that without me he’d choke on the smell of his mother’s Ph.D. thesis in the lumber room. At a certain point, he forced a bundle of banknotes into my hand. The money was his father’s.

‘Give that to Sanya,’ the doctor had said. ‘She’s lost weight. She’s become transparent like the glass cabinet with tranquilizers in my clinic. Tell her to buy better food.’

I held the sausages I had brought in my hands and they, Stavro said, became rich in vitamins, half-naked men and snakes. Stavro’s eyes were brocade curtains that turned softly their windows to me. He didn’t want me to be that transparent tranquilizers in his father’s clinic. He didn’t want me to live for the sake of the weird characters in the shorts stories he hated.

The bottle of apricot brandy he had bought to keep us warm in the blizzards of January remained open by the stool, filling the darkness with gorgeous apricot trees, blossoms and squirrels. If you killed a squirrel that ate your apricots you were bound to be unlucky in your love; you wouldn’t be able to conceive a child; men would stop thinking about women and would care only about men. But that happened only if you killed a squirrel that had eaten your apricots and had drunk from your apricot brandy.

I couldn’t fall asleep. The smoldering fireplace of the night behind the dictionaries sparked alive with squirrels and apricot brandy. Stavro was gone and I pulled back all the curtains in the office, the blue ones in the lumber room, letting the clouds, the naked men and snakes watch me. I wouldn’t have any windowpanes if I could, I even wouldn’t have walls. I would sleep with January and the snakes.

Somebody entered my office.

Perhaps that was Stavro who felt despondent about the dazzling lamps along the boulevard, or perhaps the cars’ headlights depressed him. They often did. He’d leave my place but the headlights would just be unbearable, so he’d ask me to walk him home. I was his protective curtain of purple brocade, he said.

‘Sanya!’ that was his father’s voice, transparent like his glass cabinet, a quiet voice that predisposed his patients to calm down. I calmed down, too. ‘It hurts, Sanya,’ he said, pointing at a spot under his ribs. ‘I am hungry, but I am scared to eat.’

I said nothing. I, too, would be scared to eat if that spot in my stomach under the ribs hurt me. He gave me a small loaf of white bread. That seemed strange. His wife bought only rye bread to keep the whole family slim.

‘Please, hold the bread, Sanya!’

I took the loaf which was as white as the moon and he watched me, or perhaps he watched the moon. At last he bent and I could not imagine what he was about to do.

He started eating, chewing carefully, swallowing shreds of fine white bread, his eyes wide. It appeared his gaze propped up the roof of that old house.

He ate a long time, maybe an hour, until nothing was left. He didn’t say anything. Suddenly, his lips brushed against my cheek, cold January lips, smelling of the moon. Then he was gone.

Before he closed the door, I caught a glimpse of a woman. Her hair shone in the light of the lamp. The woman sobbed softly, her tears as soft as breadcrumbs.

about the author <$author?>

Zdravka Evtimova was born in 1959 in Bulgaria. In her native country, she has published several books of fiction. Her collection of short stories, Bitter Sky, was published in June 2003 by Skrev Press, UK. Two of her short stories were broadcast on Radio BBC, on 26 February 2004, in the week of East European fiction. In Bulgaria she has won a number of literary awards including the Gencho Stoev 2004 literary award for a short story by a Balkan Author, the Razvitie Literary Award for best Bulgarian contemporary novel in 2000, and Best Bulgarian Novel 2003 from the Union of Bulgarian Writers for her novel Thursday. Zdravka lives in Pernik, Bulgaria, with her husband, her two sons and her daughter. She works as a literary translator from English and German into Bulgarian.