Gergana removed the last of the towels from the line and dropped them in the basket at her feet. A chorus of goat bells punctuated the silence of the hot afternoon and she leaned over the balcony, straining to see the herd of goats she knew must be somewhere in the bushes and trees of the hills on the edge of town. The wooden balcony rail, weathered and gnawed by wasps, dug into her hips, but she waited until she saw the goats emerge onto a small dirt track. The goatherd appeared with his walking stick and a large pack on his back. What a simple job, she thought.
She glanced at the stack of essays waiting for grading on the small glass-topped, iron table that just barely fit on the balcony and slumped into one of the plastic green chairs next to it. She leaned forward as the bells from the goats grew faint and peered down at the church across the street from her apartment. A bead of sweat dripped down her back. Though it was May, the day was heavy with life-muffling heat. Swallows sat on the ledges of the church’s three domes and the sparrows were nestled somewhere in the willow and cherry trees, unwilling or unable to flit and fly about. The three kittens that usually tumbled and pounced on one another dozed in the tall grass under the wall. Their little ears flicking flies away at regular intervals, their soft tummies rising and falling. Gergana considered a nap herself – she could grade the papers later – but the thought of lying in the sheets of her bed made her sweat more. At least outside, the air moved.
She had begged her husband to install one of the small air conditioners that everyone seemed to be buying this year, but his mother, who did not know life outside of the village, had convinced him that air conditioners were unnatural. The resulting techeniaiwould make their back muscles tight and sore or worse invite a summer flu.
Gergana reached for her iced tea on the table – lipa flowerssteeped in hot water then cooled, with a spoonful of honey she had bought from Ivan at the local pazar, and several cubes of ice.She watched a priest, dressed in long traditional black robes, take up his regular post on the bench by the entrance to the church. He lit up his cigarette and glanced up, maybe spotting Gergana, maybe not. Neither smiled, neither waved. They never did. Another priest, younger with short brown hair and glasses, entered the church courtyard holding two paper cups. The blue cups came from the coffee machine next to the hair salon on the first floor of her block building. The older priest took a coffee and sipped, offering a smoke to the other priest. We all have our vices, Gergana thought as she took a long sip of tea.
Saturdays were busy for the two priests. Gergana was not religious, but she had been in the church once for her cousin’s wedding. Inside, the church was dark and cool. Icons painted in reds and blues and greens outlined in gold hung near the front of the church, places to light candles stood on either side. Standing room only. Many mornings Gergana had stepped onto the balcony when she heard voices rising from the church courtyard, playing a game, trying to guess if it was a wedding or christening. The more children’s voices she heard, the more likely it was to be a christening.
But sometimes, like this morning, the regular church bells gave way to long, sad tolls. A funeral. People had filed into the church quietly, heads bowed and a group of men carried the dark casket inside. A few minutes later, one of the men returned and stood the coffin’s lid, cross right side up, outside the church, announcing to the world that someone had passed. Gergana always felt a little intrusive when she watched the funerals. Weddings and christenings were one thing. It was easy to share in someone’s joy, but to share in someone’s pain and sadness required the closeness of friend or family.
Gergana watched the priests drain their coffee and put out their cigarettes and wondered if they had any other duties to perform today. The woman who took care of the church gardens walked by them waving hello on her way to sweep the pebbles and stones that had migrated from the large hole in the road to the sidewalk outside the church. Gergana turned back to the stack of papers before her. She began to read Niki’s paper: The strength of one’s country can be measured in how one treats the young and the very old. Gergana paused and took another sip of tea.
When the men had carried the open casket outside once again Gergana caught a quick look of the woman’s stony face, white hair, folded hands, and clean clothes before looking away, startled by the stillness, the coldness. Perched up on her balcony looking down at the world, she felt like an old baba. Every street had a residential baba or handful of babas, spying on the neighborhood, squinting into the street, observing all the goings on, reporting news, spreading gossip without shame. She supposed shame lessened with age. Maybe one day, she too would be a true neighborhood fixture, but at thirty-one she still had some modesty and had focused instead on the funeral goers who formed a solemn line behind the casket as the bells moaned once more. As they processed out of the churchyard, one young man hung a nekrolog on the wide bulletin board placed on the wall that wrapped around the church. The group of mourners turned right and walked up the street, disappearing around a corner.
Gergana could not stand the idea of one day being buried under the ground and had told her husband on more than one occasion that she wanted to be cremated. Her father-in-law had told her one night after a few rakias that his friend’s cousin’s brother told him that in one village, not far from here, they had buried a live chicken within the casket to guard against vampirism. Gergana did not believe it or rather could not believe that people still subscribed to such superstitious old wives’ tales. She wondered if they had buried a live chicken with the woman from this morning.
Gergana shuffled the stack of papers on the table and picked up her red pen. She wanted to grade her students’ essays about as much as her students had wanted to write them. It was the end of the semester and everyone was tried and bored, desperate for the freedom of summer. If I finish my work today, she reasoned. I will be free to do whatever I like tomorrow.
She heard a shout and looked down into the street again. It was almost empty, but a boy pedaled down the riddled sidewalk, chased by his little sister on a scooter. Future students, she thought. Their mother walked leisurely behind them, stepping from one shaded circle to another, chatting on her cell phone. Next door, she could hear her neighbors fussing over their new baby, wailing to be fed. Gergana took another sip of tea, the sweating glass dripped water into her lap. She wiped at the water and drew a smiley face in the dusty surface of the table.
A taxi pulled up in front of the church. An old woman stepped out onto the sidewalk. Despite the heat, she was dressed in a long skirt and tunic with a home-knitted vest. She wore socks and her feet were tucked into soft, rubber sandals; a scarf wrapped around her head. Even from this distance, Gergana could see her face had known many seasons in a garden in some village. She bent down into the taxi and took her gnarled walking stick and leaned it against the tree on the corner. Then she took a large plastic bag from the taxi. She waved a hand to the driver as he pulled away. She wrapped the plastic around whatever was in the bag. The outline of which strongly suggested a round, shallow pan of banitsa, like the kind Gergana’s grandmother had often prepared.
The woman paused and gazed at the newly hung nekrolog and brought her fingers to her lips, then touched them to the face. She dabbed at her eyes with a corner of her tunic. Gergana guessed that the woman must have known the deceased and wondered why the woman had missed the funeral earlier this morning. Perhaps she had not been able to find a ride or had missed the bus from her village. The taxi probably cost her a fortune, Gergana shook her head. The old woman hobbled up the path to the church. The priests had already retired into the church, out of the heat and she was alone in the courtyard. She paused in front of one of the rose bushes that lined the path and bent her head to sniff. It was the only orange rose bush in the garden, somewhat unusual, as most Bulgarian roses were a deep or bright bloody red. Just before the door, she placed the banitsa down on the priest’s vacated bench and laid her walking stick across it. Then she rummaged in the pocket of her skirt and pulled out a handful of long, thin candles. Why did she bring her own candles? Gergana took a sip of her tea and sighed as the baba struggled up the three steps without her walking stick.
Gergana shrugged and turned back to her students’ essays. She marked them as she read: who, not which; continue to develop, not continue to grow up. Then she heard a clatter and looked out over the churchyard once more. The old woman was outside again and had dropped her walking stick. Her hands reached out in front of her, but there were still several inches between the stick and her fingertips. She huffed and sat on the bench. With her foot, she rolled the stick closer to her and caught it on her toes. Popping it into her outstretched hand, the baba smiled.
A wasp flew onto the balcony and Gergana jumped, knocking the table and sending her glass of tea crashing. Tea and ice spilled over the stack of papers.
“Mamka mu!” Gergana took up the essays and shook them gently. She could imagine her students’ smirks and teasing. She was known for docking points when students turned in torn or dirty papers. Presentation matters – was one of her favorite classroom adages. She glanced over the balcony. The old womanwas looking up at her, frowning. Gergana blushed, still holding the dripping papers. The baba shook her head, disapproving, then shuffled forward slowly.
Gergana draped Niki’s essay over the clothesline and clipped it carefully with two neon, plastic clothespins, then Stanislava’s essay, then the next and the next, until the clothesline was full of swaying papers, a strange line of prayer flags, like the kind she had seen in a shop the last time she was in Sofia.
She used one of the clean towels to wipe up the table and glanced down into the churchyard. The baba stood in front of the orange rose bush. She plucked the biggest, brightest bloom and stuck it in her vest over her heart. She walked through the gateway, turned right, and disappeared up the road, the banitsa tucked under her arm.
Montana Rogers is a writer and ESL educator who served as an ETA in Vratsa, Bulgaria from 2014-2016. Her fiction pieces have appeared or are forthcoming in gravel: A Literary Journal, The Sea Letter, and emerge.
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