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I travelled long on this strange journey of mine. It was quite unlike the others. Nor was it like my tiring morning jog. Initially, the jog was simply a burdensome necessity. I had to accept it as a rebellion against Age which destroys the Splendid Flesh.
Yes, Flesh is also written with a capital F. At least this is my view. Didn’t Whitman say that “If the body is not a soul, what is the soul then?”… What? A question! A question also addressed to you, my dear Reader. The world offers so many answers that those who ask questions are a vanishing breed.
Even comfortable questions, too…
… It was not so tiring, the ebb and flow of strength was not felt as during the jogging.
Because we could begin with a jog, too.
Now the march was not at all tiring. I was walking it seemed through NOWHERE and my body was part of this NOWHERE, feeling no fatigue. The only thing destroying the NOWHERE was the movement itself.
But even it did not suffice for me not to sink for ever into NOWHERE.
If there is a movement, there is direction. And if there is direction, there must be a goal.
To me, however, this goal was quite unclear. I had succumbed to an urge to walk and ask questions.
If the road took me somewhere, it meant I had a goal, too.
For the time being I was just walking like a samurai true to his tao. Or a rebel true to his absurdism.
Don’t our ideas often resemble whores before they take us to their bed.
When they are simply leading us.
And we walk after them.
Nor did my journey resemble my commercial trips where the end — successful or not quite successful — was clear and definite while material values also made the objective clear.
I was not even aware when I had started. All I remembered was that at the beginning it was a certain capricious urge but as soon as I gave in to it I realized that capricious was the least you could say about it. And the least precise.
It was quite an ordinary evening.
And that was the abnormal about it.
I had been sitting at a coffee bar with a friend. He was on gin. After the third or fourth glass he became voluble. Started reciting poems of his. It was even interesting. Although the friend I am talking about has a quite pronounced stutter and sometimes has difficulty expressing himself. At such moments even I who had grown accustomed to his way of speaking find it difficult to listen.
Now, however, I listened with interest.
Even with pleasure.
But I was not on his wavelength. For some time I had given up alcohol — not even a hundred grammes a night. Alcohol contains too many calories. People said I had become maniacal — but what of that: I was a maniac with less calories.
My friend had poured into the words he meant to say somewhat more alcohol than usual but the words struggled with the divine liquid, now swimming in one style, now in another and arrived at my end. Then the fellow grabbed hold of his guitar and the words now became like drum majorettes — they were marching and dancing their buttocks gleaming with sweat, but coming my way: young and seductive.
Well, his instrument could hardly be called a guitar; it was no more than an easel for music, made up of three different similar instruments. But the friend was a real friend. He was a thinly built man, suffering from the impossibility to shed the boyishness in himself, calling himself one time Count Albert von Alex, at another time Elin Marole Virada, or the Only Son of the Devil… My friend had become a part of myself. And now was the same. Particularly now! Because I could already feel the alcohol he had consumed — I was almost drunk.
He was reciting; this time without a guitar.
I also began reciting some of my verses.
Very loudly at that. So that the soul could hear. If you do not startle the sould with something said loudly it pretends not to hear. Angel stopped stuttering because I was already shouting — I wished to shout and not to recite. The two girls from the nearby table ceased sucking some juice from their glasses and directed their glances and their straws towards me (hence, I think, comes the expression “to drink you up with one’s eyes”). So, they were staring at me as if about to eat me but I did not give a damn and I even felt good. As soon as I fell silent and short of breath, hardly managing to mouth the last stanza, they even started applauding me.
Without irony or an intention to apostrophize but from sheer enjoyment.
Please, then, be seated at our table.
And they were.
Two slim young muses.
One of them had an uncommonly well peroxided hair, large eyes and aggressive, seasonally typical clothes which made me love summer the more (“Let It Be Summer!”): black and short elastic skirt, short and tight jersey with a purple inscription of the name of some rock group… The blouse was sleeveless so one could smell easily the odour of the beach.
The other “muse” was more soberly attired. The brightly coloured see-through dress suggested that it concealed many charms. Nor was the black shirt buttoned up to the chin: not to torment curious glances probably. Her smile was well coupled to her face and almost merged with it.
Suddenly, our table became quite populous. The two girls were not older than eighteen, so they could simultaneously pass for children as well as women, call it four friends or guests, depending on the mood you are in.
The new audience wished me to recite and now that I felt drunk I agreed and began — a mixed bag of offerings: things I had half forgotten, things I had not completed and brand — new goodies submitted for their judgement from the very well of the soul almost on the spur of the moment. Please, pay no attention to the imagery and the similes. I explained that I felt drunk. Drunk in the best possible way. That is to say, free from the world. The two girls whom I was probably never to see again, the feeling of unsuspected closeness to Count Albert von Alex made me feel the way I did when Victor Bugay showed me my newly painted portrait called by him “The Most Powerful In The World”.
Well, I was the most powerful in the world. A living picture! Without canvas. Only a stuttering and drunk friend, two unfamiliar girls, children and women simultaneously, and I.
At one moment I perceived even mistrust on the part of the girls. They could not believe that the volcano of words was all my own, that in front of them they had a living creature who could give birth to terrific words and beautiful sentences and that these sentences showered them more beautiful than flowers. And even more fragrant!
If only I stopped shouting they would feel fine. But that was the menu, madam, the words are flambéed and served with the living fire of my soul. A votre santé!
Angel (you realized didn’t you that the Count and the Only Son of the Devil was called Angel) also chipped in with his oeuvre but he got somewhat tired so he ordered himself another gin.
I did not wish him to drink, did not wish him in this way to pump up inspiration and stimulant; I wanted that he, like me, should gallop with the taste of freedom in his mouth across the prairie of our souls. But he was so much overfilled with disappointment and the nausea of the impossibility to achieve what he desired was maybe evaporated with the alcohol contained in his stomach and his weary soul. Because, you know, he did not raise the alcohol content of his stomach only, but also that of his soul. At least that’s what he said. And I believed him sometimes.
It was just as well that the girls broached the subject of the science they had devoted themselves to. Not completely, of course. Can you be full to the brim with figures and theorems? They were majoring in mathematics at the Plovdiv University. And were just having their exams. Also, they were full of anxiety. They had come here to get relief of their anxiety.
They said I had helped them get rid of their unease.
By infecting them with beauty and poetry.
And I had simply started treading in the Count’s footprints. I was going along his path. There must have been many thorns because thorns pierced our heels — no, not only the heels — our hearts, too: poets have Achilles hearts. And when a thorn or an arrow (Eros’s, naturally) runs into an Achilles’s heart poets begin to scream.
We had a chat, they told us two sweet words for farewell, promising happiness with two unknowns — weren’t they mathematicians. And the word was “ciao”. Which for the macaroni eating Italians means — I am told — both “hullo” and “goodbye”. Or maybe “farewell” Because no one knew whether we’d meet again.
Well, perhaps we would. Ours is a small town. And when I started on my travels I realized that the world, too, is not very large and that is why acquaintances do meet in this reputedly big world. Yet it is also truly infinite. At least because I have not come upon my goal.
The Count was stuttering while he expressed regret that we had simply parted with a mere “ciao” — without any piquant sequel.
He made as if to order another gin because at twenty-seven he had difficulty swallowing disappointments, he said, but I made him give up the idea.
I, too, had experienced not a few adventures and disappointments but that was not the way of coping with them.
I would have suffocated had I to stay any longer in that place.
I told him that if he could not help it he could have his gin at another place.
This “at another place” — a compromise or a prospect — lifted the Count from his chair.
He even mumbled something like “It is the custom with us not to drink only at the same place” and we got going.
Without saying another word we knew we were going to “The Beach”.
Some idlers even wondered at my keen predilection for that place and even I myself could think of no valid argument for preferring it. But I did like it. And not only because everything in it was cheap and encouraged drinking — that was the least reason and could rather be an argument with a “minus” sign (What, the dickens, were the girl mathematicians doing now?… ); moreover a gang of heavy metal groupies had for some time been hanging around, scaring off quite a few people and reproaching me that the place for a man with money (“much money” for them, “enough money” for me) was not “The Beach”… But I had got to liking the heavy metal fans and all the rest, so Angel and I went there.
Moreover, my friends Mitko and Vassil worked at “The Beach”. They were good lads who understood you even without words — with a smile or a gesture only.
This time it was incredibly quiet. At “The Beach” were lounging one or two drunkards heavily “sunburnt”. Well, they did not have gin so Angel had to do with beer. I got somewhat frightened that the mixture of the two liquids might not prove so salutary and I could be called upon to teleport the sodden bodily remains from the Count’s good mood home but I could do nothing about it.
(In parenthesis, the Count had a short time before made an attempt at setting fire to himself which must have been rather successful because the liquids with which he had soaked himself had affinity to fire. He left hospital only recently and still bore the scars. Papa Jan, the herb healer, had helped him as I had gained considerable experience in that from my stay in the former Soviet Union and present-day Bulgaria, but let sleeping dogs lie…
But I had no cause for worry this time. Angel was in good shape and his high spirits peaked once Stephen turned up at the place.
I had known this chap since a short time before. He was a lad who was also known as a poet with a guitar, carrying his instrument with him this time which made the Count’s face lit up. He needed Stephen’s guitar when reciting his verses and at such times he did not stutter but became truly artistic.
Stephen made his way towards us strumming a rock melody.
We asked for his guitar but he was unwilling to part with it. He was not in exactly a very sober mood, either, while the Count reeked like a little privatized beer-making factory.
He was smirking and singing:
I, who didn’t know fatigue
and all the time was on a long journey,
I, who seemed to be like everybody else
and awaited my Judgement Day…
For the time being the Day of Judgement was postponed for lack of sober witnesses. Stephen was growling and clutching the guitar. He only opened his hand when I gave him a banknote to buy himself a beer. And then the Count got hold of it and roared:
I swear in all the devils
that the arch Devil is my father,
although I seem to have my wits about me
I am the bridegroom of Death…
If I am not mistaken, the original of the Count’s song was different. In the original there was something about “Death will be my betrothed” but when I arrange the words in the four-cornered prison cells of verse (my apologies to Stefan Tsanev) I involuntarily edit it. Without changing the meaning at all. And without marring the poetical property of Elin Verada.
Stephen was already blowing the beer bottle like a trumpet. He could drive you mad with his drinking, trembled like a real neurasthenic but made verses which tore down your soul in rags while the rest, the weaving of the rugs, was easy…
He had invented his name. Steffan seemed a bit far-fetched and foreign and Steffan–Stephen lived like a nut and need not swear in all the devils all the time — with them he was in his milieu.
A slim and almost transparent creature made her entry into “The Beach” who need not have put on her elastic jeans which outlined her unshapely and thin lags but who now proudly and challengingly sat on them, giving us the opportunity to inspect the chain she wore over the jersey with the inscriptions “The Trick Of The Beast” and “Iron Maiden”.
Then the chains rattled in the embrace of Stephen on whom the above-mentioned creature threw herself, creating many problems for him: first she did not allow herself to be thrown away making him find other ways of throwing her off and creating difficulties for him in rubbing off her lipstick from his face.
Angel went on singing, extremely pleased that Stephen was holding in his arms a girl and a guitar.
The creature seemed to be only the first of the Indian file of girls and boys of the same type who immediately found seats around us.
The guitar was leading us through labyrinths where were lurking in pairs Life — Death, Love — Hatred, Evil — Good and of course Friendship — Treachery.
“It’s as though I am in the gallery”, I thought for a moment.
And felt fine.
The hours passed and the evening was getting more and more pleasant. And darker and darker. Something for which our souls seemed to cry out. They were drinking beer and changing all the time — merry pawns on the chessboard of good mood — now at this table, now at that; my friend brandished like flags amidst the clouds of smoke his verses set to music.
Pleasure and delight!
To the soul and to the body accompanying it.
People were coming and going; there were six or seven of us left when somebody suggested we go to the Assen Fortress and the enthusiasm exploded again.
We will go there, naturally! With the drinks and all that was necessary. We all felt so wild and delighted…
On the way I felt short of breath. Just that morning I had run a distance twice as long… There are such moments, too. It seems you feel good but your temples begin to pulsate. This is how one day… Yes, they’ll make public the betrothal… “My betrothed will be Death…” Or — how did it go. “I am the bridegroom of Death…”
I looked about for Elin Verada but the guitar was not with him. It was in the hands of the shaking Stephen who was singing at the top of his voice but I heard nothing, his words did not reach me. And I felt the same sensation as when I was absorbed by the “other medium” of the waves. Was the OTHER MEDIUM coming again? Elin Verada was swaying and talking to one of the girls. But I still did not hear a thing… Have I got so far from them?
Here was the girl, she was embracing him, she laughed but I did not hear her laughter, my ears were resounding with the phrase “My betrothed will be Death…”
I searched for the tranquilizer in my pocket, it seemed I reached for it quite often these days… Well, a person wears out like a battery and then… “My betrothed will be Death…” No, no. It was too early yet. I still liked the noisy ebb and flow of good mood, rose on its waves like a surfing man… And now I was searching for a tranquilizer although I did not like the pills in principle. They crush you like an orange. And I could not afford to be a squeezed orange for a second.
It was then that I saw the shadow of the old woman. Had I found myself in a nightmare? No, no — I was quite alert and was searching for the pills. What about the old woman then? She was wrapped in clothes heavy as a rug with a hood of the same cloth. She was not hiding her eyes. Her eyes sparkled maliciously like the eyes of a courtesan in middle age, this is exactly how they look at their younger clients. Excuse me, partners. Be that as it may. The eyes were looking at me maliciously and I almost cried out “It’s still early yet…” Or words appropriate for the occasion.
I did not shout. And thank God, because the old woman was everything else but Death…
Yes, this at least I understood… I saw her off with a glance to the turning in the road but I was entangled in the nightmare: I was feverishly feeling for the tranquilizer and my friends did not hear me nor were aware that I needed help, their help…
I found the medicine and got in stride. Are we going there? To the fortress of the dead?… And “my betrothed will be Death”? No, no these are mere words, the black beads of the song, only of the song.
“Hey! I am collecting money for booze… And we must throw a terrific party… Give me money, I know what to buy… We’re going to the Fortress…” Annie had shouted long before, while we were still at “The Beach”. And now she was walking heavily ahead of us. Next to Stephen who was straining the strings of the guitar and his vocal chords. I was again listening to his voice which meant I had swum back from the OTHER MEDIUM and was here. Sweating a bit but here. And alive! Alive enough for me to hear the words of a song not quite in rock style, Stephen’s song:
… But I will still ring the bell —
Let my peal awake you! —
The peal should remind you
That not everything is a mere dream…
I shall ring the bell and pull down the walls
The walls of vanity and fear
The walls of sins and baseness
And everything that becomes dust.
Monica, the girl who was so like a sparrow, had thrown her arm round Angel and was warbling in his ear. She was trying like the adults to say crazy little things and was pleased no end that the idea to up and go to the Assen Fortress was crazy and once we were there things had gone even crazier.
Yes, such a sparrow-like girl is much better and prettier than the “Count’s betrothed”. And I laughed out loud.
Monica looked at me as though seeing an extra-terrestrial being, not being able to realize what was happening. I like my loud laughter. It seems to me like a firm manly handshake which to me, as a businessman, is more important than any contract signed with a golden pen. Or even signed in blood! Let’s shake hands, Sparrow! In the past, when I started going to school, the grown-ups were singing a song that went on like that: “Monica, pretty child! Monica, I love you…” I am ready to shout it out now: “Monica, pretty sparrow! Monica, I l-o-o-v-e you…”
Monica nestled even more tightly in the arms of the Count. Don’t you be afraid girl! Fear nothing! In spite of the entire Russian mafia I’ll bring Victor to Bulgaria and he’ll paint you. He’ll paint even your voice, your warbling. What? You don’t believe he can paint a voice, do you? He’ll paint it dear, he’ll paint it.
I turned round, looking for the old woman. She was quite a real woman disappeared from view at the turning.
So, she’s gone and everything is all right. And I don’t give a damn for anything. Anything at all. Even if I were confronted now by all the big and mean guys of all the scrapes I had been into till then, even if I were to face the whole Russian mafia which makes the characters of Mario Puzo and James Hudley Chase pale I would still not give a damn. I am alive, am home and dry, walk with friends feel crazy and fine.
Here is Stephen, here is Count von Alex, here are the others. And I broke into a song:
I shall ring the bell till the stars
Fall into your hair…
The others fell silent and gave an ear.
“What’s the matter with you, Papa Jan?” the Sparrow asked
I answered her that I had simply woken up.
“What does it mean?” asked me the girl in the shadow who was walking behind them and came out of the shadow.
Now I saw her. She was not taller than one point six meters but with a very good body. Although she was dressed like a rocker she was slightly older than the others.
“I’ll tell you when we get to the Fortress. Now I simply wish to breathe,” said I.
The girl pushed back her hair but I still could not see her whole face. Monica giggled. Let her giggle. She was in the age of laughter. Her laughter betrayed good mood and amazement. Who was it had said that amazement is the prime cause for the birth of philosophy? I do not remember. Nor does it matter. Not one of our company. But it was a fine saying.
Something shone in the hair of the unknown girl and again gave a free rein to my voice. Stephen fell silent. I had taken his song out of him and was now brandishing it like a banner:
I shall ring the bell till the walls
shelter us from paradise and sin…
Someone caressed my hand and then squeezed it. In a friendly way. Friendly and with quite good will. It was her. My Unknown. Just like in a poem by Blok. The girl-rocker with the long hair. Later she called herself Pavlina. And I was to call her by that name.
But why isn’t Stephen singing? Has he been listening to me? Yes, he was listening to me. But he was busy doing something else, too, like trying to embrace Anni and find her “most secret place”. Don’t give a free rein to your fantasy. In her most secret place the girl had hidden the bottle of whiskey we bought at “The Beach”.
Now look at him, the knight of the Good Ole Alcohol! And he makes out he is a troubadour
I again sang at the top of my voice:
I shall ring the bell till in bottles
We recapture breath and spirit
As if they had not heard me, they roared in one voice:
“We’ll drink!” said I because Pavlina passed me the bottle after having had a swill from it.
My mouth only tested broken glass. It was left over from the fragile words which we so drunkenly smashed.
“We’ll drink!” roared I with the others.
Everyone shouted “We’ll drink!” and I could not hear the continuation of my own thoughts.
But I suppose one of the reasons why a person drinks is just that — not to hear the continuation of his or her thoughts.
When we reached the Fortress Angel again took the guitar from Stephen who did not resist. Maybe Anni held another bottle or maybe my dear Steve found something on her.
I do not know! In fact I already do — I felt really fine.
Because at that moment Anni was truly beautiful. Against the background of the overhanging Milky Way. We had reached the ruins, the Moon was almost not to be seen — it was a new moon — but it rose in us. In me, too, perhaps. Because I saw Anni as a priestess of the Milky Way and the Ruined Fortress. Can a girl, not yet fifteen, be a priestess? Why not? Our souls are always older than ourselves. And wiser. But Stephen was looking for the booze, for him she was the girl with the bottle. Or the girl with the two bottles, let us hope that there was another bottle if she had passed the “Teachers” bottle to the others…
The priestess or the bottle? This is the question which not only Hamlet could ask himself. My collector colleagues often prefer the bottle to the spiritual, too. And the glands of their good taste are connected to the stomach. And if at first the pragmatism of William James was a philosophy of values, later on “pragmatism” became a name which describes persons excessively preoccupied with their own interests and gluttony. For such people priestesses are beautiful or boring fictions in this world of so many really firm values. And a value is something with many zeroes, isn’t it? At least Stephen was not greedy. He valued bottles and a good mood.
I also sought abandon at first. With the Count at the coffee bar with the two mathematician girls. Later at “The Beach”. And on the way to the Fortress later on. When I, a thirty-six-year-old seemingly stolid person and a businessman, was about to sink again in the other medium when in an ordinary old woman I saw the Count’s betrothed — Death…
The Count himself was sitting on a rock precariously jutting over the precipice and was playing. Now the guitar was his which meant that good mood was also in his hands.
Stephen, Annie, Monica and the others were already on their way down from the Fortress in search of good mood and novel experience. Were the spirit of Tsar Ivan Assen II to espy them he would have been greatly puzzled at the behaviour of his subjects…
Because we all are subjects to the past, too!
Even when down below shine the lights of a thoroughly modern city.
“The town resembles a shining lizard,” I heard some one say next to me.
It was Her. The girl who had asked me what I meant to say to Monica. And who called herself Pavlina.
“I have an affinity for the light that destroys… Not for the light of candles but for the fire which creates arson…
And she fell silent.
“You think they’re not the same?
“They’re not. They have different character… Once the boy becomes a man he’s different. They differ not merely in the price of their toys… Won’t you say at last what you meant by exclaiming ‘I have woken up!’ “
“Have you never happened to walk as in a dream when all of a sudden everything gets into focus again and takes on another shape… And another meaning, too!” I laid emphasis upon the word “meaning and finally it seems I saw it.
“I knew you would say something like that, “Pavlina said. “I thought so back then. But I wished to hear you say it.”
“You are accustomed to yield to your urges?” I drove into the fragile conversation a question. Like a nail! Perhaps I was afraid the conversation might suddenly come to an end while the others were wildly amusing themselves.
“It would be misleading to allege the opposite, “ Pavlina affirmed. “Everyone gives in to their urges… Whether they wish it or not does not matter much… And there are not silly urges, there are silly interpreters.”
“Oh,” I said, “this is the hill of the Fortress.”
“Yes,” she said, “I love to stand on high and look at the town like a fiery lizard… I also love the fire which consumes it.”
I could have simply thought “You’ll burn yourself, my girl!” But the occasion was different. So I simply asked: “Why?”
And then she sat down. Or merely let herself go. She wanted to speak:
“Two years ago I was going steady with a boy. He painted very well but always the same subject. All the time some extra-terrestrial beings. They were supposed to be pictures of the future. Everything or almost everything was armour-plated and the beings resembled androids… He so much pondered on the spirit and the body that had become a veritable psychic… And he used to describe to me the everyday life of the Tibetan lamas — with their rituals they were said to strive for self-fulfilment… And for the perfection of redemptive mechanisms… He believed in his future and seemed to be walking towards it… But he did not live to see it… His numerous habits with which he imitated the rituals of the Tibetan monks failed to preserve him from his urges… He set fire to himself together with his pictures…”
It was not appropriate I should ask any questions so I simply kept silent.
“The Tibetan monks take solemn vows not to have any relations with women,” Pavlina continued and was almost calm. “My boyfriend had not taken such a vow and although he did not have that many relations with the opposite sex he did not remain untouched by passion… And me!”
Perhaps I had to ask something at this point. But I kept silent. Pavlina however did answer my unspoken question:
“I met him first in connection with an interview… He was strange enough to provoke my curiosity… Not his pictures… Or at any rate not merely the pictures… He was indeed strange… I spent hours in his company which of course was not any longer an interview, but nor was it something else yet… At one point he said something like the thing you said in the presence of Monica… And that put me in mind of him and the fire.”
Maybe I had to caress her. I just touched her hair to uncover her face.
“No, there’s nothing the matter with me,” but her voice was trembling. “I cried then… And it was really terrible… I found him reduced to ashes. Him and his pictures… Two or three hundred canvases. He was really prolific: he made that much ashes.”
I was stunned. I did not know what to say. It could have been different perhaps had I known the girl, had I met Pavlina earlier and had she told me about him… Maybe it would not have happened… And he, like other brethren in art, had committed suicide because he had not been understood… But to burn yourself…
“Why do you say then that you love fire?” I asked a question all the same.
“Why? Indeed why!… That fire was part of Valyo. He carried the devastating fire in himself and that must have attracted me — not the pictures. And all his silly mechanisms for perfecting oneself… Maybe part of him did indeed strive for that perfection but all else in him wished for destruction.”
The rest of the company had returned and had surrounded us. The Count’s voice had grown hoarse — he was trying to outshout the others. And he repeated to them he was son of the Devil, that snakes did not fear him, that were it up to him he would have turn all mosques into cabarets and the churches into poker clubs — so silly it was for the images of various saints to decorate the walls. Just then I did not feel like listening to all that again. Because Pavlina had begun talking about herself. She said she worked for a newspaper in Plovdiv. And now was on a visit to Assenovgrad in search for a story, something along the lines of “Mr. So-and-so Bit His Dog” but had come across a fabulous kid who brought her to us.
The fabulous kid was Annie but the priestess, too, had grown wild shouting above the din. Sometimes she fell silent suddenly. Because then she realized that Stephen was no longer looking for the bottle in her bra but for something else… See what an epicurean we had got with us!… Had he changed? Or had he simply run short of alcohol?
“How about climbing to the top?”
She agreed. I told her that even in my sleep I could take her to the top along the safest path but the light of the moon was not enough to choose the spots for the safest steps along the almost ruined walls of the fortress. But she, too, wished to escape the shouting of the others.
When Victor Bugay arrives I’ll ask him to paint this: two crazy persons walking on the ruins and below them gapes the ravine. Victor had painted Russia as a destroyed and abandoned church, over-grown with grass and weeds with only an old, skinny and lazy horse moving around it.
Yes, the voices were almost gone. What I heard was the repeated splash of water. Was that the OTHER MEDIUM that was coming? Or was I moving in its direction? During the first fit at least the ground around me was safe but now the precipice was lurking and was a more real danger than the old woman I had met.
What helped me was only Pavlina’s tender hand but I had to let go of it in the darkness — I had started sweating and became sticky.
That maybe why I called Annie a priestess of the Milky Way and the Ruined Fortress… Only because Ruin and Death are truly eternal. I had to let go of Pavlina’s hand… Not only because of the unpleasant sweat — I had to find the tranquilizer. And something was pulling me towards the precipice and I cried No-o-o… But not, if Pavlina had not heard me then I must have not been shouting. And was already on my way back… Was it from there? I do not know. In any case to my own self.
And already the shouts of the company were sweeter than the singing of birds… And the choir of the angels. Damn all angels!
My friend Angel had handed the guitar over to Stephen and had opted for the bottle. They were some meters or so behind us and ten meters below us which was neither near nor far.
“Something was the matter with you, “Pavlina said. “You had become stiff…”
“I woke up again,” I told her. “For the second time… And two times is too much even for a happy day like this…”
And I fell silent.
“A short while ago I wanted to tell you that had I known your boyfriend he would not have ended his days the way he did.”
“Do you mean to say you would have taken his pictures for your gallery? Perhaps you’re right? That’s precisely what he needed. But nobody heard him.”
We sat on the parapet round the landing we had reached. Behind our backs was the precipice but it was no longer frightening.
“And maybe that mechanical world took his life… He lived in a mechanical world… But the broken components and parts of the machine are thrown away, aren’t they?… His world killed him. Him and his pictures…”
Then in a different tone she asked me:
“What were you dreaming about a short a while ago?”
I perceived the familiar provocative intonation of her voice.
“Maybe about you… But at the moment I awoke I forgot about the dream…”
She was close to me but moved even closer. Her hand was on my knee while her mouth searched for my ear in order to whisper even closer:
“In that case, you might not have awakened… Or maybe we’re dreaming the same dream.”
Was it because I felt awkward that I kept silent? But maybe Pavlina was too experienced in these matters… Later she said so herself. I really did not know. I only kept silent and thought she loved fire. And that’s why she played with it.
“It’s demoniac,” I heard her say.
“Playing with fire…”
We both were now silent.
“And loving it,” another phrase fell from her throat, clutched by somebody’s hand.
Was it fear or passion that had gripped me here, at the topmost part of the fortress? We were so far above the town which resembled a shining lizard… And so near the bottom… No, no, I am not moralizing… I had the physical sensation I was at the bottom of a prison…
“The bottom of a prison,” I said out loud.
“What? That which lies in front of us?” she asked, not understanding my remark. Or having understood it better then me. Because she was pointing at an opening with a grating. At the exact centre of the landing. “It must have been a dungeon where the Tsar threw guilty subjects.”
The grating was new, probably placed there long after the 13th century. Maybe it was placed to keep people from falling into the opening.
Pavlina got up. Just a little while ago she walked with me on the edge of the precipice but now her legs were trembling. Was it from fear or from impatience? I did not know. But the grating frightened and attracted her at the same time.
“I want us to get down there,” she told me. “There is the Bottom!”
“To the bottom?” I asked perplexed. Did she, too, perceive the bottom. Here, at the top.
“To the Bottom!” she answered me. And again she said it as if with a capital “B”. Professional lady journalists understand the use of capital letters, if they understand anything.
I got up almost mechanically. Was I helped in rising by some one else — I don’t know. But I stood above the grating and then lifted it. And the wind was blowing her hair in my face. Even if the grating was built into the walls I would have lifted it.
“You are mad,” she said. “I love the fire.”
Now her voice sounded foreboding. It only imitated foreboding but I realized I could love imitation, too. Because a heavy stench whiffed from the gaping opening. Quite actual and authentic.
Something — or everything — was rotting down below. Either the ghosts themselves were decomposing or their mouths smelled like that because they did not use Stimorol chewing gum. Or perhaps that was how the ghosts’ deodorants stank. Not big and frightful, being afraid of which is not a shame, but little, with the bodies of salamanders, ready at any moment to dart into the holes of your soul and to watch from there with their snake eyes.
If we had a lantern or some other thing like that in order to light up the place around us, the ghosts would have disappeared like smoke, turning into spiders and historical dust. (Why historical? Is it because everything is corporeal and turns into dust?)
We had no idea what lay down below.
Nor did we know where to step on to get there.
As a matter of fact we had no idea what “below” meant.
We did not know what to expect apart from the rotting ghosts.
But we wanted to be there. To reach the bottom.
Was that an echo? Or a voice from the bottom of our souls?
Was it fear or voluptuous trembling that shook my body.
I saw Pavlina also tembling. And she laid hands on my shoulders. Was that an embrace? Or did she merely want to keep her hands from trembling?
“Shall we go down?” she asked me. “I want you and I to reach the bottom… I know that the stay there is short… But I want to experience it… And I’m not afraid of ghosts…”
“Nor am I,” I said and was now OK. “I have gotten so excited that there is no turning back.”
She must have accepted my words literally because she kissed me while we were still there. Then she went first, pulling me by the hand just as I led her to the top of the ruins. I followed her. I wanted to follow her. I desired her. Her and the light which contrary to all physical laws followed us till we reached the bottom. And it dispersed all ghosts. And it showed us where to step. We were climbing down towards the bottom and the ghosts disappeared so that we could find a way amidst nothing and step on nothing. I was going down like Orpheus in the Underworld led by an unknown Euridice along Unknown ways towards an Unknown destination.
By now the stench was not so repulsive.
And we could also hear sounds from above.
Not only our breathing but also the songs of the others who had remained outside. And had stopped acting wild. In order to turn their shouting into songs.
But we could not afford to think about songs now.
We were going towards the bottom. At last we set foot on something firm. On the bottom!
The subdued singing hardly reached our ears.
And the light vanished.
“It is dark and you cannot see my moles,” whispered Pavlina. Such words can only be whispered. “I had always liked showing them but haven’t always succeeded and have not always wanted what I like. A pity!”
The zipper of her rocker jacket hissed like a cutting knife. Then the jacket fell with a splashing sound like thrown away unneeded wings.
Still more effective was the sound of her torn away jersey. And she stood naked. Like a snake. Or like woman. If these two ideas still carry different information…
No, no — like an angel. Who is looking for its wings on the ground around me. I attempted to lift her over me but she insisted on being below. And on feeling the bottom with all her body.
At one time it occurred to me that we might be surrounded by reptiles looking at us.
With wide open eyes.
In which there was nothing. Or in which I was to see only myself. And then the ghostlike girl Pavlina lying next to me. Who preferred the mouldering of ghosts to the flames of fire.
And had such a strong desire for living manly flesh.
The bottom restored to her an old memory: she had felt like this before she had parted with her virginity, the damned virginity…
The virginity which barred her way to one single moment deserving to live through it again and again and again and again… .
“This is the b-o-o-o-t-t-o-o-o-m!” she said and pushed me down.
Side by side with her! On the bottom which we had indeed reached at long last…
When all was over and we could talk she asked me:
“It was splendid, wasn’t it?”
We lay on the wet stones and the mildew and mouldering crept like ants over our bodies. No, we were not on the bottom. The Milky Way was below us and we were floating on it. And she asked…
“Why are you asking like a schoolgirl?”
“Because I always do… And it does not happen seldom to me!
And I laughed. An odd manner of confessing had my friend the journalist chosen.
“Now we’re no longer there, on the bottom,” she again gave utterance to a thought of mine.
“For some time now we’ve been thinking the same thoughts,” I said matter-of-factly.
“After the fusion,” she explained to me like to a boy in puberty.
“After the bottom,” I recalled her to the subject of our conversation and the object of our journey.
“On can put it like that,” she vetted my reply.
Then we were silent. Because from afar, very far, from twenty meters horizontally and five to six meters vertically came the words of the song:
The party is over, the glasses empty
with blind hopes we greet the day…
It was a rock song. Without the electronic effects beloved by the rockers it sounded so as to be liked by non-rockers, too.
The party is over, the passions numb…
“Do you hear that?” I asked.
“Yes, I do,” she answered. “Shall we go to them?”
The party is over, we awake sober
And with jaded thoughts we make plans
The phrase “ make pl-a-a-ns” was a scream. Or the shrill cry of a bird.
Or of a ghost.
If we went on lying on the bottom.
Stephen was again leading the others with his song. We had to go, too.
Climbing out was easier. I lifted her with my hands and handed her the clothes to dress when she gets to the top.
Then she would drop one end of her rocker jacket to pull me to the surface, light as a feather.
Light as a feather from the wing of an angel, to be precise.
And to be more unique.
Nothing was left of Stephen’s tender voice. He was shouting and bawling but now that bawl which had often seemed unpleasant to me had become understandable. And I even liked it. Was this that Stephen and his friends called “trash”? I’m all for trash! A party on the edge of Death! and love on the bottom! Again till Death…
“One can spend a hundred years in prison if only he had lived fully one single day”. This has been said by Monsieur Albert Camus in “The Stranger”. And he knew all about suicide. Just as I know all about the matters which concern the borderline between Life and Death. Had Stephen read Camus? I do not know. But he would have been to the liking of Pavlina and her self-immolated boy friend. He had been to the liking of Nikolai Geshev who poisoned himself with alcohol… I used to call him “the genius with the sorry lot”… I was right about the lot, though…
And what with Nikolai and the Milky Way above us I was put in mind of “Star Wars”.
When Nikolai left us I felt a true jedai. He had departed this world but his strength remained. From that moment I began to paint prolifically. All my life I had been preoccupied with paintings but other people’s. I piled them up for my gallery. And now something in me had uncorked and I attacked the canvas in order to create MY PAINTINGS.
Had Nikolai, before he left this world, realized how sad the end of the party is?
Pavlina’s boyfriend had done it!
She and I together, too.
And also Lyudmil Ivanov!
An explanation was due Pavlina as to who Lyudmil Ivanov was. A friend of mine. Also a painter. Before he passed away he painted his death and his parents weeping over his body.
That painting was right behind the back of the Bishop of Plovdiv Arseni when he was consecrating and unveiling the “Papa Jan” gallery in the St. Kirik monastery.
The dead, too, had come to attend the consecration. Because I saw them.
But now we were going to the ashes of the party.
And I wrested the guitar from Stephen’s hands in order to sing something by Vissotsky. Everyone liked the change of rhythm and mood. Maybe because morning was approaching. And the morning is the time of change.
Only when the guitar fell into the hands of the Count could I ask Stephen how and when the song about the end of the party occurred to him.
In a hoarse voice hr explained that it was about a friend of his who had died of a narcotic overdose.
“Was it recently?” I asked
“Recently… But for ever,” Stephen said hoarsely. “I can only say I liked what he did…”
“Let me tell you it is not at all like that,” Pavlina answered instead of me.
“Why don’t you…” Stephen swallowed and did not finish his curse, after all. “Why do you think it is not so? Because he did not love life? You cannot understand him, dear girl! You can understand nothing. Nor my friend, nor the Indian priests who used peyote. You might say these are drugged assholes… But it is not like that. Peyote was not merely peyote. My dear friend used to inject himself with codeine, and from time to time took parkisane but in fact he took pure peyote… And he passed sway… But not quite! Has it occurred to you that suddenly you can see something excruciatingly familiar without having set eyes on it before? But it is quite real! And the illusion was the thing you knew before… If somebody could make mankind use some hallucinogenic drug only then can people tackle the answer to the question what is truth and what isn’t…”
Stephen had really warmed up to the subject and Pavlina was looking at him with wide open eyes.
“Do you know why I told you I was sure that the act of your friend was displeasing to you? The song was quite sad. And in the end you yourself gave a cry for help…”
“You’re a newspaper woman are you not?” Stephen asked her with the utmost contempt.
“I am,” Pavlina laughed. “But I do not intend to interview you. I can only tell you that you are one helluva swell guy… Do not think I am flirting with you. Later on you’ll understand why I said it.”
I only listened. And I realized I had fallen in love with Pavlina!
It was not a flirtation. It was Love!
And She was Somebody.
“Listen Stephen,” I said. “I thought of something while listening to you… I thought of anti-morality… Do you follow me? not amorality but anti-morality! Both morality and anti-morality are things which one can hardly imagine. And they can be absolute.”
“They can never be,” Stephen replied. “Because it is hard to believe that most of the soldiers led by Alexander of Macedon were homosexuals and today Bill Clinton courts popularity by flirting with homosexuals in the armed forces… What is absolute about morality?”
“If you imagine clearly a situation in which there is only morality, you will think none other can exist. Except in a parallel world… Or the devil take it… But in another picture you will see only ANTI… Which has succeeded in annihilating all else…”
My words were no more convincing than what Pavlina had said. Pavlina, however, could not yet pour all her energy into them, she could not shout… But Stephen could do that. And loved it.
And I was talking to him in such a manner.
I had learnt that from my teacher in natural medicine Boris Kaloferov. I am sure that not even psychiatrists can do it. But it is necessary!
“I get it,” said Stephen laughing. “And I must be real shit for trying to spoil the party…”
And only when I saw tears in his eyes he added simply:
This is how I was addressed by the people from Verhny Mezen. Whom I was trying to cure. And whom I had helped.
“You’re really one helluva swell guy,” repeated Pavlina.
I caught new notes in her voice.
Now there was something the matter with her.
She did not leave me wondering long what the new was. In her and in her voice.
And she began telling me while Stephen and the others were singing and shouting in their usual high spirits:
“I will tell you something I had forgotten… When I was telling you about my boyfriend. The one who set fire to himself… Get it?”
“Yea, I do,” I laughed and switched on to “reception”.
“A short time before he set fire to himself for days on end he told me that he saw in his dreams the same girl who painted unusual pictures… Once she had painted a picture she burnt it. Every time. No, no, it wasn’t out of jealousy I kept asking him. The girl he said lived very far, in America somewhere. And was called Daya… My boy had long peered in her pictures and described them in great detail. That’s why I have remembered it all. On the last picture by Daya there was a fairy-tale forest with a girl in it. The girl was surrounded by three horses, tearing apart her clothes with their teeth. The clatter of the horses’ jaws could be heard. And the girl stood embarrassed, there was much embarrassment in her smile but also voluptuousness… Embarrassment and voluptuousness were perhaps evident in his guilty smile, too. But for several days my boyfriend painted quite differently. He seemed to have forgotten about the mechanical people — he painted our contemporaries… One of them was a Stephen double, bore a very close resemblance to him. But this is not all. My friend did call him like that and presented him to me with the words: ‘This is Stephen’. And he added that Stephen lived in the same block of flats as Daya. He was her boyfriend… This is what bothers me. He told me all that within a few days of his immolation together with his pictures…”
I was silent. Making myself mysterious. And what could I say But after all I muttered something:
“The world is inscrutable,” I said. “But one day they will unravel it. Sixth form pupils will be studying the things we now marvel at in physics classes…”
“Thank you,” she replied.” This is the first banal thing I heard you say.”
“Nothing human is foreign to me”, I quoted the well-known hoary phrase. I tried to get myself out of it skillfully like a true Marxist.
And the truth is I did not pay attention very much to words. I let them walk about freely around the world. But I was pleased. In this night I had helped a fellow human being not to set fire to himself, had helped him not to die of drug or alcohol poisoning not to cut his veins over a wash basin full of tepid water and in front of posters of “Hotel California”, “Animals” and “Gypsy Kings”. Or not to jump from a rock… Should he not prefer the roof of the block where he lives.
I recalled what the paper “Den” had written about me. The lady reporter from the paper had asked a painter: “What is the standard for art? Is it Papa Jan?” and he had replied: “Why not? Art has always been affordable to the rich.” And then he had added: “There were times when artists worked for kings and churches… Why should I not work for a bank?”
He was right… But I did not know Pavlina’s boyfriend and could not have helped him. Not only I, though. Gallery owners in Bulgaria are no longer so few as before.
And yet one thought kept occurring to me. And it was: “Look at Stephen, the friend of the fiery girl Daya.”
And the friend of the fiery girl was leading our darling gang back towards the town. More precisely to the Fiery Lizard. Because I was walking next to Pavlina and the town indeed resembled a Fiery Lizard. This town could kill. With the smell of grill and beer. And with its favourite songs which it sang at the top of its voice. “I Want To Live With You”, or “My Son, My Angel”… A whole lot of nonsense, to be sure. but that sort of nonsense goes down perfectly with beerdrinking. Particularly with grilled meatballs of which you would be served a goodly plate, “… oh, my angel.” While the man called Angel himself alleged he was the son of the Devil.
“The Stones Are Falling” was another favourite song of the Town.
“The stones are falling from the sky…” Stay where you are! For years on end their grandfathers and fathers pulled the stones of the Fortress from the hill. With them they build, houses, barns, summer kitchens and even verandahs. “The stones are falling…” Everyone looked for a more well-shaped stone to erect a house that people would envy. Or to open a shop on a street corner. And to leave the ghosts without a roof, unsung and unlamented.
And unsung and unlamented like us going down to meet the Fiery Monster.
“Ech-o-o-o,” somebody yelled.
And my responsive soul echoed back:
Echo, echo… Echo up and down…
No, no I did not strike up that tune.
It would have been too much for me.
Keep your ears from falling stones!
Because the Danish philosopher Sören Kierkegaard in his “Either… or” says that the ear is man’s most perfect sensory organ…
The stones are falling, falling from the sky…
Beware of avalanches sliding down!
And of songs sliding down…
You can get buried in them like anything…
What will the living write on your tombstones then?
Here’s an inscription upon the last stone fallen from the sky and for reasons of economy used for a tombstone for you:
“Here lies So-and-So
Died of merriment
Overtaken by the avalanche of songs while discharging his
The avalanche of songs…
It slided after us towards the Fiery Monster. The town!
And I said:
“Let me have the guitar!…”
My turn had come
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