“That one!” Grandma Dora blurted out, chewing the sounds, her green eyes hot like tongs. I could not believe it: she hissed and bit the words like that when she thought of Boris. She had just come back from the front door, flushed and hot. Her blood pressure had probably reached her eyebrows and that meant death was stalking her by her easy chair. Death had been stalking grandma for eighteen years, ever since I introduced her to Boris. Since then, he had been “that one” who wanted to kidnap her only treasure, her granddaughter, on account of whom Grandma Dora made her best effort to go on living. She asked her Jewish gods to keep her whole and kicking so she could take care of me.
She had lost my father, a wise thin man, and she only had me plus two old friends, inveterate smokers, with whom she drank coffee. Occasionally, the two of them wept; not Grandma Dora. She drank vodka while her friends cried silent tears into their coffee cups.
“That one!” Grandma repeated, biting off several sounds. “I told him you were not available.”
Our sons - Boris’s and mine - were little boys. Grandma was happy they were at home, but they were “that one’s” sons and when they fought, she did not ask why; she knew. Staring at the air, foggy with feathers from their pillows after the fights, she snarled, “that one!”
“You won’t live together with him under the same roof for very long,” she often remarked. Even before Boris met “the other woman.” Grandma Dora was convinced he’d clear out. When it would happen was only an issue of time and patience.
I met Boris under the chestnut trees in the school yard of the professional school for electricians in Radomir where I taught English. The prospective electricians couldn’t care less about English grammar; most of them were only interested in learning a handful of obscene words. The present perfect tense was as remote a notion to them as tobogganing to me. Boris asked me if I had heard of a well-known local company I knew absolutely nothing about. It was a way to start a conversation.
Grandma Dora was right - I mooned about, stuffing my brain with obscure poetry or good-for-nothing novels. Boris was a physicist, a corporate manager or something, he said, but I wasn’t listening, I could hardly wait for the end of the day when I would see him again.
We didn’t go to his room in the cheap hotel in Radomir. We didn’t even go the motel five miles away from my school. Love happened quickly. There were chestnut trees, enormous ones that shone in the afternoon. The only thing I remember was how birds nestled under Boris’s hands.
On the following day, after my classes and living in the present simple tense, chestnut trees sprouted and blossomed in his wake.
“That one” gave me the sky with swallows and the winds, with old whispers and the vodka, which Grandma Dora drank. That was the medicine for her poor heart. Sometimes it pounded and thudded like the express train to Sofia, the same train that would take her to her friend--death. And yet, Grandma loved my sons.
When Boris moved into “the other woman’s” flat – she was a physicist, too, and a colleague – Grandma Dora forbade us to mention her name. “That woman is made of chestnuts and lies,” the old woman concluded and heaved a deep sigh of relief. Even when the boys fought, they did it with the summer I gave them, Grandma thought. On the other hand, she held the walking stick firmly in her hand and knocked down all chestnuts from the trees, muttering under her breath that she felt sorry for me: I was twenty five and I had two wild kids who could not sit peacefully for a minute, not if their lives depended upon it.
Sometimes Boris rang me up. Those were the days when chestnut trees blossomed and flocks of swallows came from the South. I thought about my classes. I had already learned that money meant the world, and I had none. I took on extra work, translating one more book with two million explosions and hot sex into Bulgarian. Unfortunately, I also spent every penny I earned in one week.
“Your kids are naughty,” Grandma Dora muttered. “Look at their clothes. They cut them with pairs and pairs of scissors.”
Chestnut trees grew in my sons. Boris was in them, and I could not hate him the way Grandma Dora wanted me to. My boys each wore out a pair of running shoes every month, and finished the last can of compote in the month of March.
Around this time, my car broke down and I began to walk to school and Grandma stopped drinking her vodka. Her heart turned into an express train several times a day. And it was only because she was still on friendly terms with death, that the woman remained whole and kicking.
“You are not all there,” Grandma would say. At this point she had made up her mind that although she was old like the crags, she had to do something for me, the crazy woman who knew that money was everything, but ran like mad to the chestnut trees. Of course “that one” was never there, but her granddaughter rushed to the chestnut shadows in Radomir, smiling at the sun. Why should she grin idiotically like that after the sun scorched the garden and the old car would not start?
I was happy under the chestnut trees. The birds that Boris and I had tamed together still lived there. We had tamed the wind too, and tied it in the grass to get some sleep.
One day, Grandma announced she had by chance found a tenant for one of the rooms in our two-room flat. All of us: the boys, Grandma and I, flocked together in the other. You could only call it a “room” if your imagination ran wild: four beds, two desks and a TV set – all of them battered, the TV set broadcasting either a yellow or blue tint according to meteorological conditions. If it rained, the screen was blue, if the sun shone, everything was yellow.
The tenant moved into the room we vacated. He was a quiet fellow, very clean indeed, Grandma said. He wouldn’t kill a cockroach if he saw one, a meek and mild chemist who worked in the toothpaste factory not far from Radomir.
“That guy is great for you,” Grandma said directly. She was never good at beating about the bush. “I’ve been looking for a tenant for a year now. I turned down a dozen of them, you know. This one’s good for you.”
The man stammered slightly and when he told me, “Y…y..you are pp…pretty,” he blushed furiously up to his eyebrows. Perhaps his blood pressure had reached a point not far from Grandma’s express train to death. He gave me a ride in his old Ford truck to my school in Radomir; he repaired the faucet that had been leaking since the dawn of time. Grandma Dora treated him to bean soup and asked him to solve some problems in mathematics for my sons who took advantage of the situation and badgered him into reading them a fairy tale, so docile was he.
“He’s what you need,” Grandma said.
I found nothing special about the quiet November days. I went on running to the chestnut trees by the motel, I even took Toncho (that meek and mild tenant) there, but no birds nested under his hands. He could not tie the wind in the grass and let it sleep. Toncho was grass and there was no summer in him. He was a room with four battered beds and an old TV set, which always broadcast blue movies because it rained. My sons, my grandmother and I lived in that room and it was all Toncho had.
Our daughter - Toncho’s and mine - was a green-eyed toddler. There surely was no summer, winter, spring or autumn in her. There was a warm, well-lit room in that child, and if there was any bird in her, it was still in its egg and had not hatched. Toncho however, believed the girl was everything. He took my sons to pick mushrooms and autumn leaves.
“Do you see now what I meant?” Grandma asked me triumphantly. She had again started sipping her vodka, just to slow down the express train in her heart.
“That one” had stopped calling me. I no longer taught at the professional school in Radomir. We all moved into a new flat in Pernik, a town where there was not a single chestnut tree. But I went to the birches, telling myself they were chestnut trees. I believed I tied the wind in the grass, and it was summer, and I tamed birds, waiting for Boris to ring me up. I didn’t know how things with him were.
I was grateful for the summer, for the birds and winds Boris gave me. I hope he lives happily with her, I said to myelf.
I hoped like that until the day Grandma cried out “that one!” I couldn’t believe it.
“I told him you were not available,” Grandma Dora hissed. “Hey, where are you off to? Hey, stop it. Come back. The kids will be home from school. Your husband will be back, too! You are nuts!”
“Boris!” I ran out of the old block of flats. There was not a single birch in the neighborhood. He was walking to the bus-stop, gray like the sidewalk.
After each step Boris took, directly through the asphalt, chestnut trees grew.
copyright © 2014
Zdravka Evtimova is a Bulgarian writer and literary translator whose short story collections have been published in USA (Time to Mow and Other Stories, All Things That matter Press, 2012), Canada (Pale and Other Post Modern Bulgarian Stories, Vox Humana, 2010) and in Greece (Endless July and Other Stories, Paraxenes Meres, 2013).