It takes me thirty years, and the loss of those I love, to finally arrive in Beograd. Now I’m pacing outside my cousin’s apartment, flowers in one hand and a bar of chocolate in the other, rehearsing the simple questions I want to ask her. A moment ago, a Serbian cabdriver spat on me and I take time to wipe the spot on my shirt. I count to eleven.
Vera, I repeat once more in my head, will you marry me?
Know any Bulgarians? I feel as if I know several, having read this story.
It’s a story as complicated as the region in which it’s set. I plead guilty to being a little hazy in my Balkan history, but look up “balkanize” and you’ll get the general idea. It’s a story that’s part folk tale, part historical romance, part sociological treatise – and it ends with Nose coming to terms with Bobby McGee: freedom truly is just another word for nothing left to lose.
But it starts with Nose on the porch waiting for Vera to open the door. He’s called Nose – we never find out his real name – because thirty years earlier, Vera punched him in the nose and broke it, so it’s his most distinctive feature.
Then we go back to find out how he came to be there on the doorstep, and delve into the junction of personal and geopolitical history:
A long time ago these two villages had been one – that of Staro Selo – but after the great wars Bulgaria had lost land and that land had been given to the Serbs. The river, splitting the village in two hamlets, had served as a boundary – what lay east of the river stayed in Bulgaria and what lay west belonged to Serbia.
As you can tell, the idea of “east” and “west” are crucial to this story. But a little more history makes it much clearer:
Back in the day, before the Balkan Wars, a rich man lived east of the river. He had no offspring and no wife, so when he lay down dying he called his servant with a final wish – to build, with his money, a village church. The church was built, west of the river, and the peasants hired from afar a young zograf, a master of icons. The master painted for two years and there he met a girl and fell in love with her and married her and they too lived west of the river, near the church.
Then came the Balkan Wars and after that the First World War. All these wars Bulgaria lost, and much Bulgarian land was given to the Serbs. Three officials arrived in the village: one was a Russian, one was French, one was British. East of the river, they said, stays in Bulgaria. Soldiers guarded the banks and planned to take the bridge down, and when the young master, who had gone away to work on another church, came back, the soldiers refused to let him cross the border and return to his wife.
In his desperation the gathered people and convinced them to divert the river, to push it west until it went around the village. Because according to the orders, what lay east of the river stayed in Bulgaria.
How they carried all those stones, all those logs, how they piled them up, I cannot imagine. Why the soldiers did not stop them, I don’t know. The river moved west and it looked like she would serpent around the village. But then she twisted, wiggled, and tasted with her tongue a route of lesser resistance – through the lower hamlet she swept, devouring people and houses. Even the church, in which the master had left two years of his life, was lost in her belly.
Nose and Vera grew up on opposite sides of the river, meeting in reunions and once in a while illicitly by swimming the river. The church’s cross still sticks up through the water halfway across at one point. The river is part of the culture of the two towns; it’s also a character in the story.
Uncle Radko had taken his sheep by the cliffs, where the river narrowed, and seeing Grandpa herding his animals on the opposite bluff, shouted, I bet your Bulgars will lose in London, and Grandpa shouted back, You wanna put some money on it? And that’s how the bet was made, thirty years ago.
But those to the East are still Bulgarians, while those on the West are now considered Serbs, come to consider themselves Serbs. This idea of identity, how it strains when some men from somewhere else meet in a room to draw lines on maps, is a central theme, and this is a story those men from somewhere else should read when they meet in those rooms to draw those maps. Nose envies her access to Adidas shoes and Levi’s jeans and Western music, but when he presses her to declare if she is Bulgarian or Serb, she doesn’t answer.
I knew she was sad. And I liked it. She had nice shoes, and jeans, and could listen to bands from the West, but I owned something that had been taken away from her forever.
The story twists and turns like a river. Communism falls; Vera moves away, marries, has a son (whose name she expects him to recognize; it’s unclear if it’s his name), then loses her husband in another war. Nose’s sister is shot by border guards on the night before her marriage to a boy from across the river; his mother dies of grief; he begins to drink. Eventually he is alone, in a town he doesn’t recognize, so he goes to Vera to ask for her hand. The end, I’ll leave unrevealed.
Penkov is a Bulgarian who came to Arkansas in 2001 on scholarship and now lives and teaches in North Texas. He’s much younger than the story makes the author seem. He’s done a 10-minute podcast interview with Orion, the journal that originally published this story, which is very much worth listening to. He read an article about a town in Bulgaria that was split apart after the Balkan Wars, and they did hold reunions every five years; he thought that would make an interesting story. At the same time, he was here in the States, separated from his family by a huge body of water, so he wanted to incorporate a river, with wide and narrow parts, fast and slow. I think he did a terrific job.
I first read Penkov in One Story, which published “A Picture With Yuki” last year. Both stories appear in his debut collection, titled East of the West. You may see the other stories in these pages at some point; I think I want to know more Bulgarians.