This short story has been shortlisted for the 2014 Best European Fiction anthology
She felt fresh. She even felt confident. She'd had a small energy bar. It was more like a small wafer actually, covered with a thick layer of chocolate. The chocolate was hard and when she took a bite it broke into pieces, scattering on the ground. Better off. Fewer calories, still enough energy. She had a cigarette, too. Smoking after having chocolate sucks. The taste is vile. She had a piece of gum to fix the taste, forgot about it and presented herself to the commission as she was, gum in mouth.
The commission said the procedure could last longer than expected, they asked for her understanding. Thank you in advance for your kind assistance. She was nodding, gum in her teeth, feeling her clenched jaws made her look too nervous.
Then they showed her two small pine trees. She managed to pull a napkin out of her bag and, unnoticed, spit the gum out. For a moment she felt like she had tuberculosis. The sequence itself – unfolding the napkin, discreetly spitting in it, a pinkish something. The pine trees were very schematic. Three green triangles, stuck on top of each other and below the stem, also green. Judging by the noise they made as they stuck onto the white board, they must have had a magnet on the back. They reminded her of elementary class and the shapes the teacher used to explain sets. Apples were part of the apples' set. Pears were of the pears' set. Both belonged to the set of fruits. It was so obvious and self-evident at the time and she saw no reason for the teacher to explain it by sticking apples on the blackboard. Then there were empty sets. She had seen several mentions that set theory was one of the most important parts of modern mathematics but never managed to figure out what was so important. She chose the left one. They asked her why.
Because of the movement of her arm, she answered. She might have started to point at the right pine but misjudged her movement's strength and ended up pointing left. Often choice happens by the movement of the arm. Like picking a chocolate from a box. You go for one and end up taking another. That doesn't count when the chocolates are different. In this case you adjust the motion. If they're the same, it doesn't matter. Then you just pick a chocolate, you don't choose it. You choose when they're different.
The commission said they were occupied with how choices were made, not what choice was. By the way, they asked, why did she choose Friday afternoon for this? On Fridays I can have someone watch the kid, she answered. Moreover, she works during the week. She can't afford an interruption to the job.
They showed her two hats and she chose the right one. The hats were also schematic, black and each resembled a boa constrictor that had swallowed an elephant. They asked why she chose the right one.
A misplaced sense of balance, she answered. People often get the exaggerated notion that they contribute to the balance of things. You chose one, now you will choose the other. Equilibrium. They asked whether she always had a theory for everything. She told them she has two and sometimes three theories for some things. The moment she said that, she thought it sounded like she said it because she was eager to make them laugh. Nobody laughed. The commission set great store by sincerity, they said.
They showed her two sailboats. The bottom part was a shallow red semicircle and the upper the white triangle of the sail. She wondered if all these triangles meant something. She chose the left and they asked why. An erroneous sense of cyclicity, she said. Sometimes people, when choosing, attempt to mimic chance. A run of black, a run of red. You pick one several times in a row, then only the other, several times in a row. Actually she's not sure "cyclicity" is the right word. Perhaps she didn't phrase that well enough. Could she light a cigarette?
The commission told her this was a non-smoking area. Furthermore, smoking is unhealthy.. She said damaging her health was her own free choice. They answered it was their own free choice not to let someone else damage theirs. She asked how can two antithetical free choices be reconciled. They answered that two antithetical free choices can be accommodated in two separate rooms. She heard a giggle somewhere. Suddenly she felt like she was on television. She asked if all this was being recorded. Yes, they said. She could have the tapes at the end if she so wished. The tapes? Yes, they said, however many they were. If she wanted them.
She said she'd rather not be filmed up close. She has large pores around her nose. And a hair on her chin. Actually, she wasn't sure if she had it at this moment. Every morning, she carefully examined herself in the mirror. She never could find the hair in its infancy and pluck it out. Every time she found it, it was more than half a centimeter long. She had looked at herself this morning and found nothing.
She may have missed it, though. There was a sort of silence. She observed it for a while, then asked if they had anything to ask her.
This time they showed her real apples. They are evenly red and their stem is also red. The right one is scraped. She expects they will apologize and replace it but they don't. She immediately chooses the right one. They ask her why.
She answered that one can choose even if only to challenge the commission. Besides, the scraped apple is the only thing that really stood out from what was proffered up till now. They said that was perfectly understandable. By the way, they ask, why did she lie about having a child? She answers she had hoped for some empathy. They tell her billions of people in the world have children and there isn't the slightest indication they get any consideration at all. She pauses briefly, then answers that indeed they don't. No matter, for some reason she hoped that this way she might earn some empathy with an institution. They tell her they understand perfectly well why she chose this lie. The lie one chooses is never accidental. No matter, they will not press the issue. She says nothing.
However, they say, had she hoped for consideration, she could have dressed more appropriately. She could, for example, have worn a bra. She says she has never worn a bra. She has a small bust and never had to do so. Moreover, what could be inappropriate when she is wearing two blouses on top of each other. They say her nipples stand out through the two blouses. She responds that that is not her problem. Despite male fantasies that nipples harden on arousal, that is an exceedingly rare thing to happen in public. Most frequently nipples harden because it is cold or because of hormones. For example, one week before her period, her nipples are constantly erect. So the issue really lies with people's fantasies, not with her.
Meanwhile, in addition to an irresistible urge to smoke, she is getting seriously hungry. Plus, what did the commission have in mind when they said the procedure might last longer than expected? They answered that the commission had nothing more in mind than what was said. That is, should she have imagined a period of time this exercise would take, then it would take longer.
Then they showed her two apples, identical this time. She chose the right one and they asked why. She answered a person could choose out of boredom. Boredom can make one bullheaded. And so on – 20 times, 30 times, 50 times. And by the way, she said, the previous trick with the damaged apple was way too elementary. They answered her own choice was no less simplistic.
They showed her two apples again. She chose the right one. For the same reasons, she explained. Boredom can become spite. Spite turns into complete refusal to participate. Soon she might as well start flipping a coin for choices. They answered the commission had seen quite a bit. A human being can make choices out of desperation, fear, an eagerness to cooperate, an attempt to placate, then because of a new surge of desperation, self-humiliation and panic, and hysteria and even in a fit of madness. As to her pangs of hunger, the procedure allows for short recesses in such cases. A snack will be served.
The commission hopes that she has not made any important arrangements for the near future. That is the reason we much prefer dealing with people with an abundance of time. The so called liberal arts.
We would rather you do not leave the premises. Down the hall to the right, next to the lavatories, is a smoking area. We will resume in 15 minutes. Thank you.
IANA BOUKOVA studied Classics at Sofia University and works as a translator and editor of poetry and philosophical texts from Modern Greek, Ancient Greek and Latin. She is the author of two poetry collections: Diocletian's Palaces (1995) and Boat in the Eye(2000), a collection of short stories A As Anything (2006) and a novel Journey along the Shadow (2009). Poems and short stories by Iana Boukova have been published in various anthologies and magazines in Albania, Argentina, Chile, Croatia, France, the UK, Greece, Hungary, Italy, Mexico, Serbia, Sweden and the United States.