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Walnut trees, Meissen vases, glossy maize, hanged dogs, hodjas, small luxuries, arcadian landscapes, timekeeping beetles, a community of immigrants & Bulgaria.
Ten years ago, we drove across Europe in a van, looking for a place to go back to the land. We followed the Rhine and then the Danube almost to its mouth, eventually making our home in a remote village called Podgoritsa, in northeast Bulgaria. These days we raise goats, pigs and chickens there. It is a place of ruins inhabited largely by old people because most of the youngsters have left to find work in the West.
In the early days we used to wait for the shepherd by the three walnut trees. From here, the road went up to the old cemetery and the scout camp, the lager where the tarmac ran out and the forest took over. The freezing winter had opened up deep craters in the road surface, and sometimes it felt like driving over an earthquake.
In the morning he ate his yoghurt and eggs, and if there had been a reason why he was scared to sleep in his own house, he did not say.
Tall Paul the village shepherd was forever trying to get the people to pay more, but every time he raised the fee for taking out the goats, there was a boycott. The old women watched him from inside their gardens to see if he would change his mind. In the end he gave up the job completely and went back to collecting scrap metal. Daily common grazing over centuries had given life to the pastures, and now we watched as the wiry scrub came back all across the grounds. There were simply no longer enough animals to keep the undergrowth in check.
It was by the walnut trees that we first met Stoian. Like a herald in his blue work coat he came cycling, calling to the people that the herd was on its way. Our corner was the final pickup point, and Stoian would stop for a few minutes before freewheeling down the hill to work on somebody’s roof. He was always keen to talk to the new foreigners.
Just as the village was losing its workers to the west, it was also filling up with settlers, like pioneers attracted to the peace and the space and the incredibly cheap price of property. Claire and I were part of a growing community of immigrants, mostly from the UK, who had moved there and breathed life into the empty houses. We had as much fruit, milk and honey as we needed, but, it has to be said, the empty spaces encouraged a certain degree of anarchy.
The Anglichani called him “Fingers” because he had lost the two middle digits of his left hand, and they would admire his dexterity to skip over the roof tiles in nothing but his socks.
Once the village herd was no more, we grazed the goats ourselves in the abandoned quarter below the pump house. These five houses were beyond repair. Eventually one of the other Anglichani, which means “the English” in Bulgarian, broke up the ruins for building stone and roof tiles while the foxes made nests in the cellar with the wide stone steps.
Some days I would take the goats along the road past Petar’s house that led up to the listening station. Between here and Martin’s place there were eight fallow plots, all of them untilled in spite of the good soil. Thirty years ago, forty years ago, this whole swath would have been filled with glossy maize plants and people working between the rows, their horses and carts waiting to take away the harvest of yellow cobs. The ground shivered in the heat, and the colour of the sun was so bright it made my eyes ache. Then Stoian lifted himself up from the grass. He couldn’t see me because I was under the trees, watching the goats. He had been sleeping there in the middle of the overgrown fields amongst the memories and the dreams.
Stoian had a craggy Eastern face with dark eyes and a beaky nose. His belly did not bulge through his T-shirt like other Bulgarian men. Sometimes they joked about him. He lived alone in a tidy house with an outside tap and a frame for the grapes that he had made himself from rickety poles. At the back there was a field of lucerne, alfalfa for winter fodder, but he had no animals, so he gave the harvest to dancing Stefan for his sheep. Four times a year they would cut it together with scythes, sweeping through the tall green stalks like silent machines. The Anglichani called him “Fingers” because he had lost the two middle digits of his left hand, and they would admire his dexterity to skip over the roof tiles in nothing but his socks. I did not think about his family until much later, when we needed to find a next of kin.
We had as much fruit, milk and honey as we needed, but, it has to be said, the empty spaces encouraged a certain degree of anarchy.
It was a warm evening in one of those summers when it never seemed to rain. His lucerne had been gathered in, and the field stalks looked so dry that nothing would ever grow there again. He was sitting in the first room with a glass of beer and a plate of kebapche and bread. It looked like the perfect end to a working day: no television, no family, no pets, just himself and his thoughts and his small luxuries. I envied him the simplicity of his life. He had a few close friends, but I didn’t realize who they were until later. He never attended the village festivals, and, looking back, I think he deliberately avoided groups.
By the time of the next cutting, things had started to go wrong. When we heard he was sleeping in the woods, I walked past his house with the goats and looked over the wall. There was a carpet of fallen apples under the tree, and the lucerne had gone to seed. His long-handled scythe lay across the steps, its blade bursting with pimples of bright rust. But where was he? Why had he stopped doing the normal things that made up his life?
Then he was standing outside our house. The old suitcase and trench coat made him look like a refugee from the Second World War. He went straight upstairs and put on pajamas. In the morning he ate his yoghurt and eggs, and if there had been a reason why he was scared to sleep in his own house, he did not say. We didn’t see him again until weeks later, but by then he had stopped eating altogether.
There was a carpet of fallen apples under the tree, and the lucerne had gone to seed. His long-handled scythe lay across the steps, its blade bursting with pimples of bright rust.
Before he left I showed him the two porcelain vases in my bedroom. They were made in the Meissen workshops in Germany, three hundred years ago. I still check them to see how precious they are. My dad always said they were the most valuable things in our family home. The hand-painted arcadian landscapes, the rosy pink-cheeked couples with delicate miniature faces. Dad knew how much I loved them, and I used to think of him sometimes. Now they remind me of Stoian, too, because on that morning he spent a long time studying them and it made me think that he was an outsider like me and that I was an outsider like him.
Baba Kuna had dropped her lottery ticket on the floor of the post office. Everyone in the queue watched her do it, but they assumed she had already scratched it. Now she had gone home and they urged me to follow her and return it so she could maybe win the jackpot.
In her barn there was an old plank to stop the door opening. Stoian was unloading boxes from a car and piling them up by the door. She did not want him staying with her. That was before she realized how sick her nephew was. There were two bags of clothes and an electrical cooker; in a plastic box, he had salami, bread, cucumber, margarine, coffee and a mobile phone. I studied it all as he went inside to talk to his aunt, telling me to stay where I was before I could say anything about the lottery ticket.
He got out of bed slowly and walked like a dead man to the outside tap, and there he lay down beside the concrete sink to gather his strength before he reached up, turned on the tap and drank some water.
Kuna lived in one room, down a steep flight of stone steps, but I never saw inside. The unoccupied bedrooms were on the first floor and were full of cobwebs. She had downsized. All she ever seemed to eat was white sliced bread and tomatoes. She was forever brushing the crumbs off her lap. The street dogs lived in the barn, and one day I saw one of them hanged. She was sick of cleaning up the dog shit, she said to me as she cut it down from a beam.
A few days later she was outside our house, standing with Petar, the man who walked up and down all day and every day. Kuna watched him in his heavy coat, that day all cleaned up because his cousin had come from Gagovo and taken him away for a shave and a change of clothes. She tapped the side of her head and said quietly, “Ne e dobre.” (“He is not OK.”) Then she took me back to Stoian’s house, where the scythe had been moved to stand against the wall. The lucerne was still uncut, and the apples were brown and sunk into the ground. “He’s back in the house,” she said to me at the gate.
The first room smelt of nothing at all, with no sound. But the second one smelt of rotting teeth. There was a shape in the bed, under the bedclothes. A small man. He moved when he heard the door open and the feet on the rug. We stood by the open door, just inside the bedroom, and she reached out her arm to stop me going any closer. She just wanted to show me. Then she jerked her head to the side to motion us out of there, and she fussed around the door as if she were locking it.
Stoian had not eaten for ten days. “He refuses everything I give him,” she said with her eyes open wide. She looked desolate.
The street dogs lived in the barn, and one day I saw one of them hanged. She was sick of cleaning up the dog shit, she said to me as she cut it down from a beam.
The next day, we tried to give him goat milk, because Kuna had said he would not take the shop-bought stuff. It dribbled down his stubbly chin and she gasped when he swallowed some. I heard her take a breath and hold it. She knew that taking milk was like taking food. But that was the only time he drank any. The next day, he just pursed his lips and shook his head. Then he got out of bed slowly and walked like a dead man to the outside tap, and there he lay down beside the concrete sink to gather his strength before he reached up, turned on the tap and drank some water.
Kuna had piled the sideboard in the bedroom with food. A loaf of bread, a jar of peaches, a block of sirene, Shumensko beer and two kebapche. She was hoping he might change his mind in the middle of the night. Instead it was like she had furnished his tomb. The room began to smell strangely sweet. I stood by the window, watching him; his pelvic bone stuck up beneath the blanket. The leaves of the mulberry tree looked like flashing green-gold in the sunlight. The only sound was the beetles chewing on the old wood in the roof, like silkworms munching. If I could have stopped time altogether, then his body might have ceased its wasting, but as long as I could hear the beetles, the minutes passed.
Could I have tried harder? What about when I called the ambulance? The medic tested his heart and blood pressure and told me it was not an emergency. “The man needs a psychiatrist,” he said. We whispered at each other urgently, but the medic raised his hands in frustration and left. I watched him taking plums from the trees as he walked down the lane. Afterwards, dripping butter from a bacon sandwich onto the pages of a novel, I wondered if I would ever open the book again and remember the taste of that afternoon. By then, of course, I would know exactly what would happen to him.
The only sound was the beetles chewing on the old wood in the roof, like silkworms munching.
Kuna’s final attempt was the strangest. I took her in the car to Opaka to see the wise woman, the hodja. She had been there once before, when her mother was alive, but had forgotten where the house was, so we asked around in the main street and eventually looked into a yard where a lanky boy was plucking a chicken. Kuna fiddled with a bundle in her hands. The hodja appeared in the doorway, and we saw how tiny she was. She wore the baggy Turkish trousers and headscarf and carried a book. It had a worn cover with no writing, and the pages were incredibly thin, like a Bible. I think it must have been the Koran. There was a sizeable Turkish-Bulgarian population in the villages around Podgoritsa, people whose ancestry went back to the time of the Ottoman Empire. She told Kuna that her sister’s boy had suffered a difficult birth and that later he had fallen and hurt his leg. Kuna did not seem surprised. Then the hodja gave her a folded piece of paper with writing on it and told her to sew it inside his pillow, but not to tell him. Kuna handed over a five-leva note, and the hodja was not pleased when Kuna held her hand out for change. The old woman just flattened the note against the book. She complained about having to pay that much all the way back to the village.
A year passed, and I did not say anything of this to Annabel, who was a new arrival in the village and was then looking at houses to buy. When she told me how she was going to turn the ground floor into an open living space with French windows, I never said I had been in there before. There were several versions of the tale of Stoian doing the rounds. One was that he had fallen from a roof; another, that he had walked into the forest and then died in hospital from exposure. I knew they were all wrong because I had been part of the whole thing. I never told Annabel because it might have spoiled her retirement. I did not even say anything when I found the scrap of paper on the floor as she showed me round. Maybe Kuna had stuffed it between the floorboards. The scrawling black script was almost like the tendrils of a vine reaching out across the page. There was another piece of paper too, which had the doctor’s name in Cyrillic and the address in Popovo. Both papers had been pressed together and then lost, but as I looked at them, they unfurled and unfolded. The black lettering scorched the paper and burned it away, losing its meaning completely. I couldn’t see any flames, as if the sun were shining on it, and soon the paper had completely turned to ash and there was only the slightest hint of smoke that I tried to inhale to make it disappear.
I only ever went back there once again after that. Annabel had invited us for dinner. We sat around the big table; the beams above us, oiled with linseed, glowed from the low IKEA lights. We smelt the wood polish and the scented candles and the pork roast. Some of his old farm tools, a scythe and hayfork, were lacquered and hung on the wall. But all I could see was the sideboard in his bedroom, laden with the food he never ate, and the sight of the man himself, lying on the floor when we found him dead, his legs stretched out toward us from the bed, like stiff wooden boards.
Christopher Fenton worked as an archaeologist for twenty years in the UK before travelling, with his wife, Claire, to the Balkans in 2010, looking for a place to go back to the land. Together they set up a small holding and guesthouse in a remote Bulgarian village. He has written three pieces for Sofia-based Vagabond magazine, and in 2017 was a Fellow in the Sozopol Seminars, run by the Elizabeth Kostova Foundation in Bulgaria. “Stoian” forms part of a memoir called Waiting for the Goats, in which he explores memory, history and yoghurt in the near-deserted Bulgarian village where he lives.
Lead image: Maria Teneva