It was the winter of 1980, the year of my birth and of my grandfather's death, when Grandma Nelly first put on Dencho's Dress, as she used to call it, and never took it off again. I remember she even used to wear it at night and sleep in it, with her arms crossed over her chest, as though to embrace herself as strongly and as tightly as possible, tucking her fingers underneath her ribcage. When I asked her why she did that, she would smile and say it was a way for her to embrace two people at once—my grandfather and herself. This dress was the last wondrous creation of my grandmother, the famous crochet master. And what about Dencho's Dress itself? I could never forget it. At first sight, it looked quite simple and ordinary—knee-length, slightly taken in at the waist, its sleeves reaching the elbows. It had a round collar, which I loved caressing, it was so soft to the touch. The color of the dress was very unusual, quite indeterminable. Perhaps it was a melange of many different fibers, as it surely wasn't the type of yarn you could buy at the store. But what was really amazing about the dress was its pattern. Oh, that pattern, with all its whimsical motifs and elements! A real work of art, whose delicacy, fine detail, and unbearable exquisiteness could be compared to those of an ancient Japanese vase.
Hardly any guests came to the modest wedding at the village church. Radinella's mother had refused to travel during the winter, just to see her refined daughter get married to some orphaned country boy from some obscure village. Attending on Mladen's side were his two wrinkly aunts who glared suspiciously at the foreign woman as she clutched a small bouquet of artificial violets.
"She's gotta be barren, that one, don't she?"
"It'll come out, soon enough . . . she's long past her prime, 'tis sure."
"But why'd she stay аn old maid for so long?"
"Can't you see, she ain't no beauty or anything. She's all tall and skinny, dry as a twig. And you know 'em men, they like to squeeze good chunky meat, not some dried up old bone."
"Oof, Dencho's head must a been somewhere else when he went and picked out his bride!"
The arrival of the strange woman from the city of Sofia provided a topic of conversation for months to come. Her appearance, her character, her background, the way she spoke, and even her imaginary past were discussed at length, generously embellished each time they were rehashed. Her new fellow villagers couldn't wrap their heads around and remember her name, so they quickly shortened it to the simple and easy-to-grasp Nella. And so, Radinella Luybenova, née Stoyanova, crossed the threshold of the little mudbrick house, which basically consisted of a large room with an iron bed, a sink, a stove, a table, and two chairs.
"We'll build ourselves a new one, my dear little Radinette. With a kitchen, a separate bedroom, and a little balcony. You'll see. Soon, soon," Mladen told her and gripped her hand tightly, as though worried the sight of his humble home would scare her away.
"Don't be afraid, don't be afraid," she whispered in response, as she reverently breathed in the braided scents of a hearth gone cold, of stone and earth. It was the sweetest aroma she'd ever smelled—the fragrance of a solitary home that was about to come to life.
Their first night together surprised her with how natural it felt and the astounding ease and confidence, with which their untouched bodies found their way to each other, as though dancing an ancient dance whose steps they'd never openly practiced but nevertheless knew intuitively and had mastered to perfection. And afterwards, the spot she chose as a pillow astounded her—the comfort of her ear touching the hard flesh of his chest, half of her face sinking into the countless soft little hairs, the regular rise and fall accompanied by the whizzing sound of his breath. Back then, unable to fall asleep, Radinella had also made another surprising discovery. As she ruffled the soft, vegetation-like growth along his stomach, her index finger sank into his belly button at once. Inside it, the unusual explorer found a fluffy little ball—a tiny tuft of fibers from his clothes, which the hairs on his torso had collected and then deposited into the little drain. Radinella took the small ball of fluff out of her husband's belly button and reverently placed it into her own navel, which was shallow and unable to collect any lint of its own. She then fell asleep, warmed by the softness of the foreign body.
Before long, word got around of Radinella's exceptional crochet abilities, and they soon replaced the topic of her personality in people's discussions. Her fellow villagers began to eagerly anticipate the Volgas that arrived from Sofia every Sunday, only to then drive off with her needlework creations, which she'd carefully wrapped in paper. What had the Master crocheted this time, and who were the packages for? These questions ate at them, so the neighbor women and their children tirelessly paced around, bringing jugs of milk, eggs, slaughtered chickens, and the like to Mladen's house, on the pretense of dropping in for a visit to greet his young bride. Radinella took it all with a smile, but never quite satisfied their ceaseless curiosity, only briefly explaining that her crochet creations were being sent to the capital, from where elegant ladies had ordered them.
"But do them ladies still exist!? Ain't they all s'posed to be comrades now? They all lookin' like Stalin, all wearin' them army jackets, no elegantness to speak of!" the neighbor women would respond indignantly, while the children would ask, "Auntie Nella, Auntie Nella, please, get the sho-ffer to take us for a little ride in his car!"
Radinella completed her orders in a precise and timely manner, and used the little free time she had to help Mladen with the expansion and improvement of the little house. Together with their home, their family was also gradually getting bigger. In between the two of them—in the simple iron bed, which Mladen had painted a grassy green and the Master had covered with a sumptuous angora wool throw, on which she had crocheted all kinds of birds with striking zoological precision—huddled underneath the beaks of swallows and orioles, peacocks and cranes, herons and eagles, two messy-haired little heads now slept. The Luybenov family's life was going smoothly and with ease—Mladen was responsible for the mechanization of the local agricultural co-op, while Radinella, besides her private occupation as a crocheter for the Party, worked at the lipstick plant where she completed five-year plans on a regular basis. The Master's hands had perfected the art of communist crochet to such an extent that even with her eyes closed, she could still create impressive portraits of Stalin, Lenin, Georgi Dimitrov, Dimitar Blagoev, Vasil Kolarov, and even of the six child martyrs from the Yastrebino village, with their big sad eyes and their soft hair cut in the shape of wreaths. The ascent to power of the head of state's daughter, a sort of communist princess with spiritual and esoteric inclinations, resulted in the introduction of some new elements into the Master's daily creations—they brightened up their communist pathos by incorporating images of Hindu deities, colorful mandalas, cosmic fires, spirals, messenger pigeons, and solar disks. As the years went by, Radinella perfected her art by using special double and triple crochet hooks, which she fashioned herself. She also came up with her own, never-before-seen stitches that went beyond the established canon's basic chain stitch and single crochet—those included interloops, braid-overs, wrap-arounds, mini-tangles, knot-by-knots, and other magical and unheard of words that trickled out of her mouth like gentle spring rain.
Every night, Radinella diligently collected the lint from her husband's belly button and carefully put it away in a little box next to the bed. The years of harvesting eventually also filled the large chest under the window, which had once kept the clothes of the messy-haired little heads, who—now meticulously combed, were married and working at a research institute in Sofia.
"I don't understand why you do this," Mladen would ask, at a loss.
"Just like that . . . they're very dear to me. They're yours," Radinella would try to explain.
And then, one morning, a morning like any other, when people were going to work, children to kindergarten, and cats into other people's yards, Radinella startled in her sleep—something had happened. Suffocating from a painful and terrifying premonition, she quickly pressed her face into Mladen's chest, squeezed her eyes shut and tried to think but couldn't, as the rushing sound of blood in her ears was drowning out the scream of the terrible thought that nevertheless squeezed through, dragged itself, and crawled with the insane persistence of a mortally wounded soldier, leaving a bloody trail of guts behind him, she couldn't hear the beating of his heart, couldn't hear the whizzing of his breath, no, now you'll see there's nothing to be scared of, he's just fast asleep, he got home late last night, he's been retired for a few years, but still works in the dairy farm, loading hundreds of metal tins of cheese into trucks every day, and how many times did she tell him they'd get by either way, that there's no need for him to work so hard in his old age, but you've got to put some money away for the kids and the grandkids, don't you, for a car and an apartment, for high school proms and weddings and funerals, seventy years ain't that much, look, he can still pick her up with one arm and dance the polka, and over at the dairy farm, he's the oldest but he's also the toughest, and he never puts his feet up and he's always the first to come in and the last to leave, and they wonder about him and they say, hey old man you're a vampire, a blood-sucking bat must've bit you, what do they feed you at home, you probably drink the blood of baby lambs, and then they laugh and click their tongues as they watch him toss the metal tins into the truck one after the other, and the boss also clicks his tongue with approval and pats him on the shoulder and tells the others he's an oldie but he's tough, you can't find folks like that nowadays, just idlers and loafers who'll always find some excuse about why so-and-so can't be done, but this old man here, he can work, not like the young ones, you tell 'em to fill up the ditch and they dig it out or you tell 'em to dig it out and they fill it up, when it's all so simple and all you need is two hands to do the work and this guy here, he might be old and his mustache might be white, but he's healthy and strong and work can't ever knock him down, so now he must be fast asleep.
The first thing Radinella did was dig out that crucial relic of the now vanished life—it was light green, warm, and slightly scratchy to the touch, since it was winter and Mladen had worn a wool sweater the day before. She clutched it in the palm of her hand for a long time before finally putting it away in the chest with the rest. She prepared his body diligently and without any needless fuss, as she had another important job to do. She brought out the distaff and spindle and began to spin. This was how, right in front of her eyes and out of her hands, the fuzz and fluff of their days turned into fibers, and she rolled the fresh yarn into balls while contemplating the forms, the squiggles, the little snouts, the stitches, the feathers, the chain stitch, and the single crochet.
VIOLETA RADKOVA (1983) was born in Sofia. In 2006 she graduated in British and American Studies from Sofia University St. Kliment Ohridski, and in 2008 she received a master's degree in British and American Literature at the same university. Her love for words and writing has led her to work as a translator/interpreter and editor. Currently, she is the creative director of an advertising agency. Violeta Radkova is the editor of the Bulgarian translations of Angela Carter's The Infernal Desire Machines of Doctor Hoffman (translated by Angel Igov, Altera, 2010) and Jeremy Page's The Collector of Lost Things (translated by Angel Igov, Smart Books, 2015, Winner of the 2016 Krastan Dyankov Translation Award). She has been writing and translating prose and poetry in both English and Bulgarian. She is currently working on her first novel.
THE ELIZABETH KOSTOVA FOUNDATION and VAGABOND, Bulgaria's English Monthly, cooperate in order to enrich the English language with translations of contemporary Bulgarian writers. Every year we give you the chance to read the work of a dozen young and sometimes not-so-young Bulgarian writers that the EKF considers original, refreshing and valuable. Some of them have been translated in English for the first time. The EKF has decided to make the selection of authors' work and to ensure they get first-class English translation, and we at VAGABOND are only too happy to get them published in a quality magazine. Enjoy our fiction pages.