Pulling a knife on Boubayko might not have been the best way to say no. After all, he is my father.
“Drop the knife, Memcho,” Boubayko said. He took off his belt and cracked it. “Drop it or I’ll tan your hide.”
I stuck the knife forward. “I’m not doing it, Boubayko. Tan my hide all you want. I’m not doing it.”
“Oh, you’ll do it,” he said. “You’ll do it, Memcho, with a song on your lips.”
My rage had taken us outside in the yard. Mother and Grandma stood by the doorway, weeping. My sister, too, looked like she would cry. My brothers were trying to calm them down, holding them, as their women feet were too weak for the scene. Only Grandpa was still inside, finishing his lunch.
“I am not getting married,” I said.
Boubayko cracked his belt.
“Listen, Memcho, I already paid the hodja. I bought a he-goat. You’re getting married, like it or not.”
“Memcho,” Grandma cried, “for shame before Allah, drop the knife.”
“Shame on you, Grandma. You want to marry me off to a stranger.”
“Allah is watching, Memcho!”
“Let Him watch! The sky is cloudy.”
I could feel the knife cold in my hand. I wasn’t going to use it, of course, because I love my Boubayko.
“I’ll use the knife, Boubayko,” I said. “Call the wedding off and sell the he-goat. The Mountain will burn, but Memcho Kara Ahmed will not marry at sixteen!”
“Say my name once more in vain and I will tan your hide.”
Grandpa stood at the door, looking at me, his eyebrows knitted together.
“I work for this day and night,” he said and raised a piece of bread, “I break my back and when I have lunch, I want to have lunch. I don’t want no fights and no knives. I don’t want no weeping and I don’t want no knuckleheads screaming my name in vain.”
He walked through the yard and slapped me. I dropped the knife.
“Now wipe your tears,” Grandpa said, “kiss your Boubayko’s hand and come back for lunch.”
Then he went inside, chewing on the bread.
That night I heard Mother and Boubayko talk.
“He has,” Mother said, “too much of the devil in him.”
“I hope it’s just the devil.” Boubayko told her, “I hope it’s not that Christian hodja messing his head.”
“They saw him two hamlets from ours,” Mother said, “preaching and messing heads.”
“He won’t mess my Memcho.”
Later, when everyone fell asleep, I grabbed my shirt and pants and walked over my brothers on the floor. I moved past Boubayko and Mother and stepped out of the house. All was quiet.
“They’ll break your bones if they catch you.” I jumped, startled. My sister stood behind me, smiling.
“They’ll never know.”
“Maybe I’ll tell them.”
“And maybe I’ll tear your ears off,” I grabbed her by the ear and pulled hard. She slapped me on the hand and I let go.
I put my pants and shirt on. I buttoned up.
“Visiting the sweetheart, are we?” she said and chuckled.
“I’m going out for a walk. I can’t stand Roufat’s snoring.”
“Is that what they call it now, Memcho? A walk?”
She came closer and gave me a kiss on the cheek.
“I heard Boubayko speak of your wife,” she said, “some girl from the upper hamlet. One-eyed, he said, but otherwise in good condition.”
I pushed her away.
“Wait a couple years,” I said, “until Boubayko buys you a he-goat.”
“I’ll never marry. I’ll run away to the city. You’ll see.”
I laughed, then kissed her goodnight.
I walked through the high grass. Above me, the moon thinned in a starry sky and behind me Rhodopa rose dark and distant. The tops of the pine trees shook and rustled. We would harvest soon, I thought. It was tobacco season.
It must have been an hour before I reached Maria’s village. Once I was there, I took my usual shortcut—over a fence that can’t keep a mangy lamb out, but has little fishes etched in each plank, then across a yard with pretty flowers—christentemums, I remember Maria calling them, then past a house with two stories and a marble boy pissing in a pond. Maria’s house was at the end of the village. Light broke through the kitchen window and I could see a man sitting at the table. A wild dove flittered in my chest. My throat was dry. I picked up a pebble and threw it at Maria’s window. Then I threw another one.
Somewhere in the village a dog barked.
“Memcho,” I told myself, “if they catch you, they’ll break your bones.” Finally, Maria opened the window.
“You idiot,” she said, “can’t you throw smaller stones?”
She jumped out, a shadow swimming across the yard. Wind blew from behind her and picked up her hair and made each tress dance, hurling at me the sweet, soft smell of lilac, of fresh, warm milk.
I hugged her and didn’t let go forever.
“Let go,” she said. “I can’t breathe.”
I took her hand and was going to lead her up the hill, to the tobacco field, where we always sat.
“No,” she said. “Father might need me.”
I spat on the ground. Behind the drawn curtains I could see him, drinking rakia. We walked a few feet and sat in the grass.
“I want to invite you,” I said, “to my wedding.”
“Are you proposing?”
“Boubayko found me a woman. Paid the hodja, bought a he-goat.”
“Tough luck,” she said, “I guess you can’t go back once the livestock’s involved.”
“Come on, Memcho! A he-goat?” she giggled.
Then suddenly she was quiet. She leaned her cheek upon her hand and gazed into the dark. We sat with the wind hitting us. I saw her face once or twice, as the clouds withdrew and the thin moon touched with honey that white, yogurt skin of hers. Her eyes glistened.
“Why don’t you tell your Boubayko I’ll be your wife?”
“He’d rather see me dead than married to a Christian.”
“Then why don’t you deny him?”
I took out a cigarette and lit it. The tip glowed, redder with each draw. Maria took a drag and coughed.
I reached over, took one of her soft tresses and held it for a long time. Mother, Sister, Grandma—their hair is black like tar. Maria’s hair—the sun lives in it.
“Is she pretty?” Maria asked. I dropped the tress. “Your wife, is she prettier than me?”
“She has one eye,” I said. “So, yes—she must be.”
Maria pinched me and we laughed. I leaned over and was ready to kiss her when glass broke inside the house. Her father shouted.
“You little bitch!” he hollered. “How many times have I told you to twist the cap all the way!”
Then, before she could get up, he was out in the yard. The clouds withdrew and I saw him for a moment, rocking, the broken bottle in his hand shining as the moon rays touched it. He saw me, too, and staggered forward. Then fell.
“Come here, little Turk,” he yelled, waving the piece of glass. “Let me cut your Turkish throat. Kissing Bulgarian girls . . . little Turk.”
“Memcho,” Maria said. She didn’t say anything else. She looked at me and I knew I had to go. She went to her father and picked him up, and he staggered, and called her a little bitch.
“I don’t want no Turks in my house,” he told her as they went back inside. “Goddamn Turks.”
Then all was quiet again. I put the knife back in my pocket and felt the weight of the cold edge. Tired, I walked home.
Next day Boubayko came to the house and said the tobacco had turned yellow. It was time to harvest. Sister cried. My brothers sulked.
“You are sissies,” I told them. I went and hugged Boubayko. “Take me to the field,” I said. “My hands are itching.”
“Hugs or no hugs,” he said, “you are still getting married.”
We walked up the hill, under scorching sun, until the field stretched wide before us. The air was heavy with tobacco, so heavy you could chew it. Long, lean rows, supple stems, ripe leaves, yellow, orange, like flames.
“One day I’ll have my own field,” I said. Boubayko slapped me on the back of the neck.
“I thought your hands were itching,” he said and gave me a sack. “Well, go scratch them.”
We worked until it was time to eat. Bent double, picking the leaves from the bottom of the stalk up. We moved swiftly, we spread across the field; yet, in four hours, when I looked around, it didn’t seem like we’d picked at all. My fingers were stained, and my hands hurt, but it was a good kind of pain, one that I would take any day. We sat under a pear tree and had bread and white cheese. The stalks moved with the wind, rustled, and for some reason, as I watched them, my eyes filled with water. This time though, there were no cameras to catch that.
Last year, some city folk came to shoot a movie. “We want to film you,” they said, “picking tobacco. We are shooting a movie about your ethnos.”
“What’s an ethnos, Grandpa?” I’d asked.
“It’s who you belong to,” Grandpa had told me. “There is the Bulgarians and the Turks and between them there is the Pomaks. And we are the Pomaks.”
So this was my ethnos—Boubayko and Grandpa, and Mother and Grandma, and Sister and my three brothers. And as an ethnos we had picked tobacco on film. They had paid us three levs each, and brought us food and drinks, just so we’d show them how to pick the leaves—from the bottom up.
Now as I ate and remembered, my brother Roufat came to me.
“Things are muddy, Memcho,” he whispered. “It turns out Boubayko promised you to Hasad. His daughter saw you on TV. Picking tobacco. I want him, she told Hasad, him I’ll marry.”
“Hasad or not,” I said, “Memcho Kara . . . ”
“Listen, airhead,” he cut me off, “Hasad has nine hundred goats, not counting the newborns. He owns this field, and all fields on the south slope of Rhodopa. He works for the government and swims in money.”
“Well, he’ll drown with Memcho.”
“I heard a rumor,” Roufat said and leaned closer to my ear, “that a stranger had come to the hamlet. Quiet, bearded. In his belt—dagger to dagger, and on his thigh—a levolver.”
I tried to swallow, but I could not.
“Give me water.” He gave me. I drank.
“Come on, Roufat, who steals boys for weddings?”
“They steal women,” he said, “all the time. I’m saving money right now to have Silvana stolen. And if they steal women, why not steal you, Memcho?”
On the next day again, we harvested till noon, then ate under the pear tree, everybody quiet. Boubayko looking at Mother, she looking back at him, then at Grandma. Grandpa chewing tobacco. Spitting and chewing.
Muddy business. Rotten.
“Listen, Memcho,” Boubayko says, “I’m thirsty. Go fetch me something to drink.”
“Boubayko,” I tell him, “we have two whole skins, bursting with water.”
“I want it fresh,” he says and waves at the road.
I empty a skin and head for the river. As I walk, all that mud chokes me. Makes me dirty and I shiver. I round the hill and there by the road I see a man. Quiet. Bearded. Smoking on a stone.
The man spits on his fingers, stubs the tip of the cigarette and puts it in his jacket. I see two daggers stuck in his belt.
“Listen, Memcho,” he says, “we can do this the nice way. Or we can do it my way.”
He gets up. He’s big like a wild boar, so if I hit him—he might like it. If I run away—I will be a woman.
“All right,” I tell him, “we’ll do it the nice way.”
I fling the empty skin and it hits him right in the chest. I don’t wait to see more. I turn around, and with all my strength, I run to the forest. The bride-stealer charges after me. I leap over bushes, in between trees, down the steep hills, and I hear him growling, yelling, getting closer with each step. But then I trip and fall, and I roll head over toes like a pebble—down, down, down, until I stop in a bush, right by the banks of the river.
How I am still alive after such a fall, I don’t know. My legs are scratched but there is not even a single drop of blood on me. Strange business. On the river banks I see people—fifty, maybe a hundred. Limping, I make my way to the heart of the crowd. The bride stealer, I’m hoping, is still up there, at the top of the hill.
The people are silent, waiting for something. I stand on my toes and I look around. In the middle of the river I see a strange man, his black robe wet up to his knees. One by one the people go to him, he makes them kiss something in his hand, then dips them under water. When they get up he puts a string on their neck and lets them go.
“What’s he doing?” I ask a stranger. He looks at me and shakes his head.
“Three hundred years ago,” he says, “all people in Rhodopa were Christian. Then the Turks came and with their swords turned everyone pagan.”
We stand there for a long time. The crowd gets thinner, and finally it’s my turn to face the man in the river.
“Child,” he says once I walk to him, “how would you like to be Christian instead of Turk?”
“I’m not a Turk,” I tell him. “Turks drink rakia and eat pork. I’m a Pomak.”
“I, too, was like you,” he tells me, “But then God came to my sleep and said—Child, Jesus is now your boubayko. Go along the paths of Rhodopa and wake up the folk. It is Bulgarian blood that flows in their veins.”
“Me,” I tell him, “I pulled a knife on Boubayko. He wants to marry me off to a stranger.”
“Well,” the man says, “Christians don’t marry strangers. Christians marry whoever they want.”
He raises his hand and holds a silver cross before my lips. There is a man stretched on the cross, and he is naked and pierced with nails, and it seems like he suffers.
“I don’t want to be like him,” I say and nod, “but I don’t want to marry either.”
I look behind at the Mountain, and she looks back at me. The river is booming. It will be cold underwater.
I came home at the end of the day. Boubayko sat in the yard fixing his leather shoes. He’d let his shoulders hunch, and, in the gloomy light, I couldn’t see his face. He shivered, sighed, took a deep breath, and held it long before exhaling.
“Did you get some fresh water, Boubayko?”
He jumped, startled.
“Memcho, why are you here?”
“Where should I be?”
Boubayko got up and looked at me from head to toes. His big hands patted me, on the back, on the chest, on my shoulders, as if to make sure everything was in its place. He hugged me and gave me a kiss.
“Why are your clothes,” he said, “wet?”
“I swam in the river.”
I’d never seen eyes so big as Boubayko’s when he saw the string on my neck. And the cross, dangling.
“Memcho,” he said. He picked up the cross, but then dropped it like an ember.
“That’s right,” I said. “Memcho is now from the good faith. With the Christians.”
Boubayko sеt a hand on his chest.
“My heart is stopping,” he said and fell forward. I caught him and lay him on the ground.
“Grandpa,” I yelled, “Boubayko’s dying.”
My sister ran out first. And screamed first. Then they all screamed as they came out—Mother, Grandma, my three brothers. Grandpa pushed them away and kneeled by Boubayko. I was holding his head in my hands, but my eyes were turned away from his. I couldn’t bear their stare.
“Stop staring,” I said.
“My son—an infidel.”
Grandpa slipped a pill in his mouth and told him to keep it under his tongue. The string was out of my shirt and the cross swung above Boubayko’s face.
“Memcho,” Grandma said.
“That’s right, Grandma,” I told her, “Memcho’s now Christian.”
Before I knew it, she’d fallen over. Grandpa jumped up to give her a pill.
“You better take it, Grandma,” I told her.
I got up, dressed, packed bread and cheese for the road, and bid my sleeping ethnos goodbye. Boubayko had vowed to take me to the hodja in the morning and have the spell over me broken. I wasn’t going to no hodjas. I was on my way to Maria. We’d run down to the city and find me a job. You saw me picking tobacco. I’m strong. Besides, I’m with the Christians now. That’s what the Christian hodja said when he dipped me in the river—“In the name of the Boubayko and the Son and the Holy Ghost,” he said, “rejoin your brothers. It is Bulgarian blood,” he said, “that flows in your veins.”
We’d go to the city and live there. When we made enough money, we’d come back, buy a field and grow tobacco. Good plans.
But as I walked in the night, a levolver cocked behind me.
“So we can do it my way,” a man said, and landed something heavy on the back of my head.
The first things I see are two dark eyes. Smiling.
“You slept all day like a princess,” a girl says. I try to look at her, but everything is misty. I get up, then a pang in my head shoots me back down. In the bed.
“I never slept in a bed,” I mumble. The bed is soft under me like ten rugs, or twenty. Or even like hay, but without the prickliness. My head is killing me.
“It’s a French bed,” the girl says. “Boubayko brought it when he went there on business.”
“You must be Hasad’s daughter?”
She giggles. Her face slowly comes to focus as she leans closer and whispers.
“And you must be my Memcho.”
She has two eyes, which is good, for a starter. And her voice is soft and she smells of roses. A soft tress lands on my face, and tickles me—her hair is black like tar.
“I won’t marry you,” I say.
She whispers, “You will, Memcho, you will.” Her voice, when she says this, sends shivers down my spine. She claps three times.
“Aga Shab-a-a-an!” she shouts. My head booms with pain. I look around the room—a colorful rug is hanging above the bed. The opposite wall is all covered with large pictures—men and women, in some clothing. Nearly naked—dancing. I stare at one woman, at her thighs rather, when the door flings open. The bride-stealer walks in.
“Aga Shaban,” the girl says, “he won’t marry.”
“He’ll marry,” Aga Shaban says. He adjusts the daggers.
“All right, I’ll marry. But you must know—I’m Christian now.”
Aga Shaban laughs. The girl, a tiny little thing beside him, also chuckles.
“Get up,” he says and pulls me out of the bed. I finger the string around my neck and show him the cross. He steps back, adjusts the daggers.
“Fatima,” he says, “out!” She shuts the door behind her.
“So,” the bride-stealer says, “you’re Christian?”
“Where does it say you’re Christian?”
“Where does it say I’m Muslim?”
“Pull down your pants,” he says. I stare at him.
“Pull them down. I want to see if you are circuscised.”
“Circus or not, I’m not taking my pants down.”
He pops his knuckles.
“I’ll hammer your swedes,” he says. “Pull your pants down.”
I pull them down and I show him. He goes to a big wooden chest, and takes out a new pair of pants. Dyed, with pocket flaps and braiding. He throws them at me along with a white shirt.
“Get dressed,” he says and pops his knuckles.
“Aga Shaban,” I say when I’m done. But he grabs me by the side and carries me out.
The sun is bright. I keep my eyes closed for a moment. I hear whispers and laughter. Then drums start beating, and when I open my eyes, I see a whole yard filled with people. Sitting at tables, food on the tables, drinks. Hasad sits at the main table and beside him sits Boubayko. My future wife is between them—in costume, laughing.
“I’m Christian,” I tell him.
“That’s fine,” he says. “We’ll fix that. Father!” he yells, “Come here, Father!”
One of the guests walks out and I recognize him by the black robe. His eyes are burning and he reeks of rakia.
“Mr. Hasad, sir,” he says and stumbles. “I got carried away. I didn’t know he was one of your people.” He makes a few steps to the side, then attempts a straight line. He reaches for the string on my neck and breaks it free. He puts the cross in his pocket. “Nothing personal, sir. But you know how it is. National policy, really—convert the Pomaks, make them Bulgarian.” Hasad waves at him to be quiet, then sends him away.
He pats me on the shoulder and plants another kiss. Behind him, I see the Muslim hodja, with the book in his hands. I go soft in the knees. The drums beat louder.
So, they marry me off. One time I try to say no, but I hear knuckles popping behind me. It isn’t much of a wedding, either. Do you take him, I take him. Do you take her, I take her. Good then, before Allah, I proclaim you husband and wife, The drums beat to seal the marriage. Dum-dum. That is that.
It comes time to leave us alone in the room. The women lay new sheets on the bed—snow-white. Outside, the guests are laughing. Eating, drinking, waiting. Such is the custom. We will do what we do, Fatima and I, then I will take the white sheet to the yard. I will show it. If there is blood, the bride has honor. If the sheet is still white—shame upon her boubayko.
So they lock us up, alone in the room. Curtains drawn. Fatima starts undressing, and my mind is all on Maria. My eyes, though, my eyes are on Fatima. She lights a candle. The flame flickers and the light slides down her shoulders. Down her back. She turns around—naked.
“Memcho,” I tell myself, “it is Maria you love. Be strong.”
One time Boubayko sent me to clean a stable for money. Two days I shoveled cow dung, until the smell soaked into my bones. Now, as Fatima comes to me, naked, and kisses my neck, that’s what I think of.
“I’m nervous,” I say. “I can’t do it.”
She looks at my pants.
“Your pants,” she says, “are telling a different story.”
I push her away and get up.
“It’s the laughter,” I say.
She puts a towel on, opens the door and hollers at the guests, “Quiet! You’re scaring my Memcho. He can’t deliver.”
She shuts the door and lets the towel drop.
“Give me a minute,” I say. In my mind—I’m shoveling cow dung.
We sit in the dim room for an hour. Then for another. I hear whispers outside, but nobody laughing. At last someone knocks on the door. Fatima cracks it open and whispers something. We sit, quiet. Another hour passes. Outside it must be dark, I’m thinking. The moon must be up. I think of my Maria and how she waits for me, and brings rakia to her father, and how he calls her a little bitch. I get up. I pace the room, clenching my fists. I sit down.
Someone knocks on the door, and when Fatima opens it, an old woman walks in. She looks at me, clicks with her tongue, and hands me a cup.
“Drink it,” she says, “then you’ll deliver.”
The drink is red and thick like blood. I drink it. The taste is so bad all my desire goes away.
Good, I’m thinking.
“Good,” the old woman says. She leaves.
A plan forms in my head. I’ll wait here four or five more hours. Fatima will fall asleep. The guests, too, will be tired and sleepy. I’ll sneak out the window and through the fields; I’ll find Maria and we’ll run to the city.
But then, as I’m thinking, the red drink kicks me in the loins.
Cow dung, I’m thinking, cow dung. The next thing I know—my pants are down and I’m reaching for Fatima.
Three hours later, the candle is all melted. I lie on my back and stare at the ceiling. My heart just now begins to slow down. I turn around to look at Fatima. She’s got up, I think, to light a new candle. Some of the moon squeezes through the curtain, lands on her body, and paints her blue in the dark. My brain is swollen with her image, and, for a moment, I catch myself thinking—what if I stay? Here, in this house, in this bed, with her so close, for the first time with her in my reach. What if our nights are all like this? And in the morning—out on the field. The south slope of Rhodopa—all Hasad’s. And the tobacco fields—all Memcho’s.
Fatima searches for a match. She turns around and I smile at her, but then I see a knife in her hands. She pricks her finger and yelps.
I stare at her for a moment before the thought hits me. And then I’m all myself again. I jump to my feet. I gather up the white sheet in one sweep.
“Give it,” Fatima says and charges, but I push her on the bed. I’m almost out the door when I stop and turn around to have one last look at her. What if, I tell myself, and with the sheet in my hands, naked, I cross the threshold.
“The sheet!” Someone yells, wakes up the drummers and they start beating. All of the guests get on their feet; some women giggle, others sigh and look away.
Fatima walks out from behind me and tries to take the sheet. I push her back.
“Let’s see,” I say, “who has honor and who doesn’t.”
Two men bring burning torches and the yard lights up like a day. The drums beat louder and louder. I step forward, and spread the sheet open. I show them.
“White like snow.”
“Ay, Fatima!” a woman cries. Fatima runs back inside and shuts the door, locks it. Clamor spreads across the yard. Boubayko comes to me and looks at the sheet. Then Hasad takes it.
“Like snow,” he says. “Fatima,” he hollers, rushes to the door and starts banging. While Grandpa is inspecting the sheet, and Mother is soothing Grandma, while all the guests jabber and gossip, I round the house and disappear, naked into the night.
At first, I’m scared. By now they must have discovered I’’m missing. Aga Shaban has pulled out two or three daggers and is already chasing my trail. This time he’ll catch me, down by the river, and cut my throat on the bank. It will be bloody. But then, as I run naked, as the wind blows against my body, as the grass touches my thighs and pebbles scrape my feet, the fear goes away. All there is now is the night, the wind, and the peaks of Rhodopa. I feel no shame running like this along her ridges.
I reach Maria’s house and throw a twig at the window. I wait while she gets out. The sky is all clouds so she can’t see I’m naked.
“Don’t be scared,” I say, “by what you see.”
Then the clouds draw apart, and the moon blossoms.
“Maria!” I gasp. Sharp light falls on her face—her left eye is black all around, her lip is split and there is a cut on her right cheek. She walks toward me and lays her head on my chest. I hold her tight and she shakes in my hands. My chest gets wet, the wind blows against it and I shiver.
“I’ll kill him,” I say then. I reach for my knife, but I realize I’ve left it behind with my pants.
“Memcho, please,” she says as I walk to the house. She puts a hand on my shoulder, but I move on. I bang on the door.
“Come out,” I holler. My voice sounds deep and foreign. I hit the door with my fists. “Come out! Come out!”
“Memcho, please.” The kitchen window lights up. I see him as he walks across the room. He opens the door and steps out.
I move back a little and wait for him to come all the way. This time, he walks in a straight line. In the village a dog barks, or maybe a wolf howls up on the hill.
I punch him in the face. Maria screams as he drops. My fist is burning and I shake it.
He gets up and wipes the blood off his lips. Some moon digs up the clouds, and I see him clear before me. He’s tall, but he looks broken. His shoulders hunch and begin to rock. Tears roll down his sides. I land another blow and he drops hard. My fingers are a mess now. I watch him cry and I think I have never seen a grown man cry like this.
“Get up and fight,” I holler. But he just shakes on the ground. Finally, he gets up.
“Memcho, please,” Maria says from behind, her voice drowning.
“Let me see how you hit,” I yell, “Hit me!”
But he just stands there. I clench my fist again, ready to smack him in the face, because I want to kill him, I swear I want to, and I’m ready to hit him, as hard as I can. Then it all comes to me. He’s been hit enough already.
I turn around and take Maria’s hand.
“Come,” I say. I lead her up the hill, up into the Mountain.
We reach the tobacco field in silence. It’s the same field I worked on all week, and it, too, belongs to Hasad. I can’t see it for the dark, but I know how it spreads wide like a yellow sky on the ground, how the stems bow with the wind, how the leaves shake and rustle. I can smell the good, strong smell of tobacco. Somewhere down below us dogs are barking, men are yelling and searching.
“Listen,” I say. “Rhodopa sings.”
And when the tobacco shakes, and the pines rustle, and when the hills around us shiver, it feels like a woman is singing, lulling us, her children.
“Maria,” I say, and I want to tell her about the Christian hodja, and the wedding, and about the sheet, but then she looks at me, and she’s so clean, and I’m so very dirty.
On the branches of the pear tree Boubayko always leaves bags with tools hanging. I search a bag until I find a matchbox. The barking is now louder and the voices, too, sound closer. I lead Maria to the center of the field. I strike a match, kneel and let the flame play with a leaf. The flame flickers and drowns in darkness. I light another match and another, but they all go out against the wind.
“Give me your clothes,” I tell her.
“No,” she says.
“I can’t do it if you’re not helping.”
Slowly, she takes off her shirt, then her skirt and hands them to me.
“Here,” she says, “I’m helping.”
I strike another match and this time the flame gulps up the dry fabric. They burn in my hands, Maria’s clothes, and I let the fire settle deep between the threads. I lay the clothes on the ground. The flame looms high, grows fat with tobacco, spreads quickly with each toss from the wind—ten, twenty, thirty stems explode in the dark.
We stand naked in the middle and the light from the flames bathes us. The whole field is burning. Hissing, twitching, cracking. Thick smoke rises high, trails to the sky, and now, if someone’s watching from above, he will see us. Let him see.
“One day we’ll have our own field,” I tell her.
The dogs are very close, and I think I can hear the voice of Boubayko, or maybe Aga Shaban popping his knuckles. But I let the fire eat all the noises, and it’s quiet again.
“Maria,” I say. I search for her hand, my eyes on her eyes. “Will you be my wife?”
She shivers, she nods.
“And a witness?” she says.
Behind us, Rhodopa stands tall. Around us, the earth is burning.