Albena Stambolova's novel Everything Happens as It Does is the winner of the 2012 Bulgarian Novel Contest of the Elizabeth Kostova Foundation and Open Letter Books at the University of Rochester. It was published in English by Open Letter Books in November 2013.
This story considers itself the story of everyone. I don't know if this is true. You will be the one to decide.
I myself am certain that all stories are love stories, so I have refrained from classifying it as such.
It is simply the story of women and men who are mothers and fathers, sisters and brothers, loved ones and friends... or, in a nutshell, of people who are tigers and lions, oranges and lemons.
This is neither a funny story, nor a sad story. It is simply a story that takes place somewhere on the border between the world we know and the world we are no longer very sure about.
1. Little boys and their parents
In the beginning, Boris was unable to think about the surrounding world. Things just happened to him, and he had no way of avoiding them.
His parents, for example, meek as they were, looked like a grandpa and a grandma rather than a mother and a father, and that always unsettled him. His sister was eighteen years older than him, and people mistook her for his mother.
Later, as he grew older, he devised a way to escape. He would try to lose himself in uninhabited worlds, where it was hard to establish relationships of the family kind.
With the bees, he managed for the first time to draw the boundaries of something he could call his own.
Before he enrolled in the English Language School in Plovdiv, he had a lot of time on his hands and nothing to do. He made it his purpose simply to pass the time. Afterwards the opposite happened: he learned to stretch time to fit whatever work he was doing. And to stay in his room, while his sister's family, although he was supposed to be living with them, carried on a life of its own.
When he started wearing glasses, the painful awkwardness of his childish face shifted into a look of seriousness. The glasses somehow set everyone at ease, as if things had finally slipped into place. Wearing glasses had the effect of calming the vague fears the family harbored about Boris. Not that they now knew him better than before. But an introverted boy with glasses was less worrisome than an introverted boy without glasses.
Boris could feel the change in people's perception of him and immediately saw its advantages. Later, when he grew a beard, he could see how, just as the glasses before, the beard replaced whatever it was in him that provoked fear in others. One thing substituted for another. And behind it all stood the child named Boris.
He never asked himself how others did it. Getting to an inviolable place of his own was all that mattered, and he could always tell when he was in it.
He learned to do things no one paid attention to. Or to do things in such a way that no one paid attention to him. For instance, he was willing to eat something he couldn't stand, rather than give himself away and make his dislike known to others. He realized that his mother felt anxiety and, although he could not understand why, he felt he knew enough already.
Then the eight-year-old grandson of the old woman died. She lived in the neighboring house and the boy used to spend the summers with her. His father and mother would drive him there in June; they would visit him, bringing some food, several times in July and August, and finally they would come and take him back for school in September. Boris and the boy were the same age and knew each other vaguely. But since Boris never played with other children, the city boy had more friends than he did.
Fishing occupied the boys' time in the summer. The reservoir was thick with ooze and stale water but generations of carp lived in it. Boris could tell where the boys gathered by the smoke columns of their fires. The air smelled of dry timber and food. Or rather, of what they called "food" – their catch. Boris did not want to have anything to do with them. Neither the boys, nor the fish, nor what the boys did with the fish, appealed to him.
Nobody could explain how the city boy drowned. One evening he just didn't come home to his grandmother.
Grief settled like a cloud over the entire summer. Boris was taken by his mother to see the boy. Even later, already adult, he still could not understand why the child was dressed in white and laid in a flower-covered coffin, by which everyone in the village stopped to bow.
When Boris left a flower inside the coffin, as his mother had instructed him, he felt like this was a kind of punishment. People wailed over the boy's death as if they had killed him themselves.
It was the first time Boris had seen a dead person. A child. He stared at the calm face and suddenly thought that the boy had managed to hide somewhere. He was pierced by jealousy, wishing he, too, could become invisible to others.
As usual, he never mentioned a word about this to anyone.
For the rest of the summer, the children were not seen in their playing grounds. The weather became unbearably hot. Storms rose every now and again, blowing down twigs and leaves. The old woman stayed in her house. Sent by his mother, Boris would occasionally bring soup and bread to her. The old woman would sit or lie in a small heap on the floor. All the doors would be open. But all the windows closed.
Boris liked visiting her. She didn't look at him or speak to him. He never caught her sleeping. Whenever he entered, he noticed her opened eyes first. She looked past him into the distance. Her eyes were beautiful, Boris thought. Full of attention and smiling. She never appeared confused, or scared.
He would leave another bowl and a piece of bread wrapped in cloth on the table, taking the old ones. The woman never touched them. Boris would then sit on the edge of the bed, chasing away the flies. For some reason the kitchen was much cooler than the rest of the house. Or it just seemed so to him. The old woman had also found a way to hide herself and Boris wanted to know how. He felt good sitting with her, even better than with his bees. It was difficult to leave. Once, his mother came looking for him. He saw her coming into the garden and got up to meet her. If she had seen him sitting on the bed with the old woman, he would have felt ashamed. To sit with her was something that only belonged to him and he did not want his mother to know about it. He rushed outside, and his mother stayed in the house for quite a while.
3. Farther up
At the end of that summer, his parents decided to baptize him. God only knows why they hadn't done it earlier. Boris was mortified. He could not understand why this had to happen to him: it never happened to anyone else. The comparison caught him unprepared; he was not used to seeing his life measured up against that of others. He was overtaken by panic at the prospect of this mystery in which he was to become the main protagonist. But he understood that he would be doing something for his parents, something, whatever it was, for their benefit.
He let them dress him in clothes he had never seen before and joined the procession of adults on the forest path leading to the chapel. They forbade him to carry anything with him. He felt content moving along the path, observing how his feet followed each other over the ground. One foot, the other foot, then again, as if moving by their own volition.
Movement and silence hand in hand. Intimations of other silences, of other movements, of someone walking next to someone, hovered around them. Each bend on the path made him anticipate the next. It was anticipation too brief to invite fear, under the dome of the indefinite woods, dimensionless like a house never visited.
Everything required silence. Stepping was almost like walking. Yet not quite. He discovered that stepping on the path was a cautious pleasure, felt by him and felt by others, a shared pleasure. They stepped side by side and moved toward the next bend, a little farther up the slope, hand in hand with that silence.
Boris and the others. It was possible as long as there was silence. Together in the half-light of the dome. The place opened up to receive the procession.
And Boris learned that the world could be this way. No one was rude. No one touched anyone in the increasingly dense stillness, now become a permeable environment. Behind them, he could hear a rustling sound like that of a snake's tail among the thickening layer of rust-colored leaves. There was no need to turn back to look. Before them lay the same full-bodied stream of leaves, from all these different years, and his feet sank to his ankles. Many autumns under their feet, their feet now invisible, driving them down the same path, along the same steps, already made by others. Where others had walked. Years later, Margarita would try to explain a similar thing about her grandmother's lamp and only Boris, to an extent, would be able to understand her.
He pictured the chapel from time to time. He had no idea how far it was. Or if it was white or if it was small.
They stepped on the leaves and were silent. In their silence was nothing they wished to conceal.
Boris began to love this walk, just as he had begun to love the old woman.
The steps followed one another, alone, together, sometimes simultaneously, according to no rule. But the steps were not made, they were making themselves. The walking did the walking itself and he was there, knowing the chapel was at the end of the road. A place in this big house where they found themselves together.
Then he saw it. He was already in front of the door, almost as big as the chapel itself. They told him to open it.
Boris pushed the door with the tips of his fingers and it opened beautifully, revealing in the coming light a small space where someone was sitting. A tiny woman in black, whose eyes he was to meet again years later. Eyes the color of fog. He drew back his fingers and the door gently closed.
Albena Stambolova is the author of three novels: Everything Happens as It Does, Hop-Hop the Stars, and An Adventure, to Pass the Time. She has also published a collection of short stories, Three Dots, and a psychoanalytical study on Marguerite Duras, Sickness in Death. She currently lives in Bulgaria, where she works as a psychological and organizational consultant, and is working on a book about fairy tales.