Mom, play for me a little.
If she could only hide somewhere now, like a small animal in a hole. She remembered the day she decided she wouldn’t play anymore. She had her hands over her belly, as she tried to protect the baby while he hit her. The famous and world-renowned composer. If she’d only dared to open her mouth. But she said nothing and did nothing. The only thing she uttered quietly was, out. She hoped that this time, he’d hear her. And so, he left. So much time had gone by since then. He never showed up again, until today.
They used to make a beautiful couple. She would play the piano and travel everywhere with him. She admired him and didn’t notice that drinking made him turn evil. And since he was careful not to be seen drinking in public, he would drink at home, and then scream at her and hit her. In the morning, instead of an apology, he would talk to her about music, kiss her hands, and beg her to play his latest composition.
A week after that “out,” she’d gotten a letter from a lawyer. He was leaving her the apartment. The piano stood there like an enormous black insect, its eyes fixed on her every move. So, she wrapped it in pink and baby blue fabric, covered it in veils and ribbons, and turned it into a wondrous castle for her Lilly, who never found out what made up its foundation.
She broke off her friendships, stopped going to concerts, and never went to see any relatives. When Lilly started kindergarten, she got a job at the pastry shop across the street.
Today, when she entered the room and saw him, her hands turned blue. She hadn’t seen him in years. She’d thrown him out, the way one throws out an old TV set, just before the garbage truck comes by. And now he just stood there, telling a story to Lilly, who watched him and clapped her hands in rapture. The neighbor that sometimes came over to babysit Lilly was watching on in quiet embarrassment. How had he charmed her into letting him in? How long had he been there already?
“Hello. I told them I was an old friend of yours.”
Then he leaned over to Lilly.
“My little princess, I have to go, as I have a long trip ahead of me. Your mom will walk me to the door. Our meeting has been wonderful.”
Lilly pouted a little theatrically, but hopped away on one foot, went to the couch, picked up a package, and started unwrapping it.
She still didn’t move. She heard his voice again and looked at him. Love can’t be thrown out to the trash.
“Lilly is wonderful. So are you. Forgive me. I just wanted to see you both. I’m dying.”
And then, he left.
“Mom, play a little. Look at the present we got. These things are called notes. They’re magical and they dance. And they sing too. But they only listen to you and only follow your fingers’ orders. And, you know what? The castle is magical too, it can play music. We have to open its royal gate. Yes, that’s what your friend said. He’s my friend now too.”
Lilly kept talking and talking. She was running around. The curls around her flushed little face were bouncing up and down. When Lilly went to get the scissors, she looked at the present. On the front of it, it said, “I dedicate this, my final concert for piano and orchestra, to two unforgettable women, with love and the hope they’ll forgive me.”
Lilly didn’t know how to read yet.
I think about you a lot, Katerina, and I can’t wait to see you this summer. It’s been four years, four whole years, since I was back home. It’s strange, the place we call home—is it where we grew up or where we live at the moment? I feel my heart sinking, like something might happen, something that might prevent me from going on this trip and from seeing you and everyone else. It’s madness. Wasn’t that a line from some movie? It’s true though—the closer I get to the end, the harder it becomes. Just listen to me, I sound like a prisoner. Three more months. I keep thinking about how we used to tell mom that we’d all have three kids each and that we were going to let her take care of them. Instead, we all got scattered—I’m here, Marina is at the other end of the world with her diplomat husband and doesn’t even know where her home is, Bozhana keeps moving around, and mom is in the middle of Europe, but still far enough away that we can’t be together. People might think I’m lucky that both of my children were born here, they might say the same thing about my sister . . . But she’s over there, I’m over here, and you’re somewhere else. Here, there, distances, borders, hopes, hopes without borders. Here I go with the movie lines again. I’ve booked my flights already. First, I’m going to Zurich for two days, then to Venice and Verona, for another two days each, then on to Paris, and finally to Bulgaria, to see the whole family. My God, I almost forgot—I’m coming to see you too. Don’t laugh, I know you just laughed. I know you well, you probably haven’t changed at all. To me, you still sound the same as you did eight, nine, or even twelve years ago. I miss the sense of friendship. I always have. Living with memories isn’t easy, but I’m hoping things will eventually get better and we’ll be able to see each other more often. See, I’m already about 600 miles closer to you, now that we moved a little to the north.
I’ll be staying with mom over the third week of September, her favorite month. Yours is still October, isn’t it?
That used to be my dream, actually—to set off on my own, to go see friends and family, to stay in fancy hotels, to read, to have a quiet breakfast every morning, to go to museums and concerts. One whole month—alone.
What happens when your dream is about to take off? You start chasing after it, afraid it might get away. And when you actually catch it, you feel great, like you’re on the top of the world! And then what? You say you’re sorry for doubting it, you apologize for the moments you’ve lost faith in it, you embrace it. You surrender yourself to it. And then, you go in pursuit of the next one . . .
Will you make sure we have time to see each other when I come?
I tried to call mom last night, but nobody picked up at her house. She didn’t answer her cell phone either. Weird.
See you soon, very soon, kisses.
Katerina, did I wake you? I’m sorry, but I still can’t get used to this time difference. I just couldn’t wait any more. I have to tell you right away. Remember when I told you a month ago that a Bulgarian woman used to live in my apartment before I moved in? She’d left some of her things behind—a book, an embroidered tablecloth on the table, and some rose-scented soap in the bathroom. I felt weird, as if those smells somehow belonged to you too. So anyways, I was checking the mail this morning and found an invite addressed to this Bulgarian woman. Her name is Nia Nikolova. And the invite’s to some Bulgarian wedding. I tried to find an address or phone number for this Nia, but didn’t have any luck. So, I wrote back to say she doesn’t live here anymore. But then, you know what I decided? I’ll go to the wedding myself. They might let me in. I’ll explain that I have a Bulgarian friend, and I’ll take a photo of them as a present. I could even sing them a song. Don’t laugh. I never came to visit you in Bulgaria, but I still might, some day. And now, I’ll get to see a Bulgarian wedding, right here in New York.
I’m doing well. Really. I got a job at a photo studio almost right away. For the time being, they just want me to help out, but I hope to eventually start taking some photographs myself. This wedding, then, could be my lucky break. I’ll show them the photos, they’ll be impressed and . . . my American dream will come true. Which would be great, as I wouldn’t have to wait another three months for the school year to start. Oh, by the way, I got a dog. It’s already a year old, but I liked it so much that I had to get it. I initially named it after myself, but then it turned out to be male, so I changed his name to Marouk. Marouk the dog. He’s very cute. The kids haven’t seen him yet. The older ones got an apartment together, but they went on a trip a week ago, and Theo is staying with his aunt. He’ll be there for a month, and then she’ll bring him back here. I think it’s all going to work out. How could it not, right? Are you still there? Please, give me some kind of a sign. Don’t go to sleep yet. Just say hmm or uh-huh every once in a while. I really feel like talking. I went to this wonderful place yesterday, right by a lake. It was really beautiful and completely deserted. There was a swan there, it spotted Marouk from far away, and for some reason it immediately rushed toward him and started hissing, even though it had the entire rest of the lake all to itself, all that water and all that empty space . . . It must’ve been because of the silence. The kind of silence you feel on the inside. The swan was probably listening to one of the thousand versions of its own whisper, surrounded by nothing but silence, when it suddenly spotted some movement, some other being, and it must have gotten confused. Marouk quickly got out of the water and ran off.
Then, we kept walking until we reached a path that led down to the water. In the middle of the path, there was a rather low, brownish gate with a rusty handle. I pushed down the handle, but it turned out to be locked. Apart from the gate and some freestanding posts sticking out of the ground, there was nothing else all around. That really cheered me up. You couldn’t go through the gate, but you could pass on either side of it freely.
Are you still there?
While she listened to her voice through the receiver, Katerina pictured Maria tossing her hair back. She had a cute British accent and her voice was a little raspy. At 47, she was starting over. But not from scratch. We always carry our baggage, wherever we go. It’s like that tale about all of mankind going up to God and saying, “We can’t do this anymore, we want different crosses to bear, ours have gotten too heavy.” “Alright,” God told them, “leave your old crosses here and everyone can pick a new one to bear.” The people put down their crosses, then lined up and started examining and trying on different ones. When they were done, it turned out that each person had picked his own cross to bear, regardless of whether it had been old or faded, or shiny and new . . .
Sometimes I wonder if it was a mistake to just pick up and leave everything behind—my home, my job, even my country . . . But it’s better that way. The house had grown deaf with silence, it was filled with all those photographs, and it was starting to creep me out. And the kids were already grown. I hope they’ll be able to find jobs now too. It’d be great if they decide to go to school. But you never know what luck has in store for you. For a while, I was starting to think my luck was hiding so deep that I’d need a very long time to find it . . . But it just showed up on its own. I guess that means it still favors me.
Maria has been through a lot. After seventeen years and three kids, the man she was living with left her and married somebody else. A charming and successful photographer, he traveled a lot and would occasionally leave her for different women, although he always came back to her. Until he didn’t. That’s when Maria got sick and had to be admitted to the hospital. Katerina went to see her and Maria told her how he’d asked her to marry him twice before, how they’d set a wedding date, and how each time he’d backed out at the last moment. Afterward, as some kind of compensation, he’d take these amazing portraits of her and throw huge parties, so he could show off the photographs to all their friends and the famous people from his world. And how she’d always stayed.
Then one day, Maria opened her eyes and realized it was a fresh morning, a morning she felt belonged to her. She went to a photo studio and told them she wanted to become a photographer. She started working twelve hours a day and taking classes. One day, she got a call from some art school in New York. They’d seen her work in a magazine and invited her to teach there, and she just went. She only took her three children, a few bags, a little money, her good memories, and all her enchantment with what lay ahead for her.
You fell asleep, didn’t you? Even if you didn’t hear a single word of what I just said, it’s still wonderful to have you at the other end of the line.
I’ll call you again, after the wedding.
BISTRA CHOLEVA-LALEVA graduated from Sofia University St. Kliment Ohridski in 1990 with a Bachelor’s Degree in Pre-School Education and Bulgarian Language and Literature and from the Free Acting School in 1993. In 2005, she attained her Master’s Degree from the New Bulgarian University, majoring in Artistic Psycho-Social Practices. Since 1996, Bistra Choleva-Laleva has been actively working in the social sphere, using her artistic talent and means with various groups at risk. She participates in the Art for Social Change Program, the Red House Centre for Culture and Debate, as well the European Cultural Foundation. In recent years, her work has been focused on the Sensory Labyrinth Theatre. She is the Chairperson of the Association “BIVEDA” for Art and Education.
Married and currently living in Germany with her husband and two children, Bistra Choleva-Laleva founded the non-profit organization BIDA e.V. Kultur und Bildung, which has successfully realized projects under the Grundtvig Programme of the European Cultural Foundation.
Katerina’s Network is Bistra Choleva-Laleva’s first book, which was published by the Zhanet 45 publishing house in 2012. She is currently working on her second book.
About the Translator:
EKATERINA PETROVA is a freelance translator, journalist, and editor, based in Sofia, Bulgaria. She has a B.A. in International Studies and German Studies from Macalester College in Saint Paul, Minnesota, and a Master’s in European Politics from the London School of Economics. Ekaterina has translated a number of literary fiction and nonfiction texts, including journalistic articles, film scripts, short stories, and several novel excerpts. In the spring of 2014, she won the Translators’ Fellowship of the Elizabeth Kostova Foundation and Open Letter Books at the University of Rochester, where she worked on her translation of Bistra Choleva-Laleva’s short story collection Katerina’s Network. She has also attended the 2012, 2013, and 2014 editions of the Literary Translation Ateliers, organized by the Elizabeth Kostova Foundation and the Union of Bulgarian Translators. Currently, Ekaterina is completing the Certificate in Applied Literary Translation Program, organized by Dalkey Archive Press, in collaboration with the Center for Translation Studies at the University of Illinois, which is expected to result in the publication of her first book-length translation.
Read more translations by Ekaterina Petrova:
Fiction in B O D Y