A text by the 2016 Sozopol Fiction Seminars fellow and CapitaLiterature participant Toshka Ivanova
Listen to me, boy. Sit down and listen to me carefully. I have something important to say to you. Do you remember that forest ranger everybody used to call the Indian? He was no Indian, had never even seen an Indian, but he used to say the only book he had ever read in his entire life was Winnetou, so everybody called him the Indian. Make sure you read the right books, my boy, because you never know what name people may decide to give you…
Don't laugh. It's bad manners to laugh at your grandfather, and I haven't summoned you here to have a laugh. This man, the Indian, he died last week. In his sleep. They say his heart gave in. A merciful death, they say. That's what you call mercy, you dumb asses? I say. Don't laugh – this is important. No death is more horrible than to die in your sleep, I'm telling you. It's the worst. Here he comes, Death, who comes once in your life to take it away from you, and you, what are you doing? Right then you're sleeping… Tell me, wouldn't that be rotten luck? It's rotten luck, I'm telling you. You sleep through the one thing that happens once in your life. That's what I call bad luck. And those who say that's a merciful death, they can stick it right up their asses… Merciful death… And that priest, if I manage to lay my hands on him, I'll teach him a lesson. So they bury the Indian, and the priest sprinkles the grave with holy water, chanting something about what a good man the Indian had been and how he was now up there, in Heaven, where a choir of angels was singing in his honor. If I see that priest, I'll tell him, too, where he can stick his heaven-shmeaven, together with the choir of angels.
This has nothing to do with anything, my boy. It's all lies. You listen to me – I am 87 years old. I have lived for 87 years. I have been dying for 87 years. What that means is that I know about these things more than you do, and more than any goddamn priest. There is no heaven. There is nothing after. No hell, nothing. Everything there is is here and nowhere else, and when this here ends, there follows Nothing. Nobody goes anywhere after that, they just stay six feet under, providing food for the worms. This is the afterlife I believe in – feeding the worms, nourishing the soil, and if you took some joy in this life, you may push up some flowers; if you were mostly gall, you will be pushing up weeds. That's all there is. No angels playing harps. This was all made up so people could be deceived, so they would stop asking questions about life and think about the sweet hereafter instead. "It's difficult now, but in the afterlife it will be easy" is what they say to themselves and they keep quiet. And that's the point – no one is supposed to protest about anything, no one is supposed to want more from this life here on Earth, because angels in white will sing to him in the next one! But what if it turns out there are no angels, no singing and no heaven at all? What then? Well, all you have is whatever is happening to you here, and if you like what is happening to you, you're lucky; if not, you got ripped off. Do you know what would happen if people realized this? Do you? You know nothing, so I'm going to tell you –a terrible racket, that's what's going to happen. There will be such racket, such howling, no one would have ever heard anything like it. Then no one would be waiting for the hereafter anymore, because there is no "after", there is only now. So if you want to have a good life, you must want it now, not wait for something "after."
You must remember this. No university can teach you this, only I can, because I have had 87 years to learn it.
But there was something else I wanted to tell you, about the Indian. When we buried him, with all the flowers and tears, I went back home and I got to thinking. I thought and I thought for three days. That was more thinking I had ever done, not excluding when I proposed to your grandmother. But I figured it out in the end. I am not afraid of death. I'm not afraid of the nothingness that comes, either – it's all in the nature of things. Everything in this world is born and the moment it is born, it starts dying, and then it's finished and dies. That's how it is, has always been and always will be. You can't change the order of things, you can't stop the file the keeps eating away at your life, bit by bit, from the day you appear as a newborn baby to the day you become a white-haired old man like me. That's how it is, and since it is as it is, there is nothing to be afraid of.
When we buried the Indian, though, something else occurred to me, and this time I was afraid. He died alone, the Indian did, alone in his bed. It was three days before they found him. And that, I think, is not right. That is not in the nature of things. Come to think about it, they say, we are alone when we come into this world, so what's the problem? But if you really think about it, that is not true. I thought about it for three days and I got it, and now I'll tell you: no one ever comes alone into this world. When you were born, who was there with you? Your mother, of course, no child can be born without its mother. Right? So your mother was there. Who else? A doctor, to be sure. A nurse, or maybe even two nurses. And even your father may have been there. Now they let the fathers in, go figure. How many do we have here? Your mother, a doctor, two nurses, your father – that's five people. Five! And they are all waiting for you, you rascal, to come into this world. Don't laugh, this is serious. Even if, let's say, it was only your mother and the doctor – that's two people already. Or say she was alone – it happens, everything is possible – still, one person is there waiting for you, one person is there to meet you. Your mother meets you, she brings you into this world, so to speak. Hello, welcome! This is the world – there! Deal with it as best as you can! It's probably going to crush you, but if you can, try and be happy a little.
That's how it is and that's in the nature of things. So, when you come into this world, there is someone to meet you, at least one person; there may be five. Isn't it right then that there should be someone to see you off when you go, when you leave this world, after which comes nothing? Isn't it right? Isn't it, I'm asking you?!
Right it is. I thought about this for three days and I figured it out. I bet at the university they won't be able to figure it out in three years. That's why I'm telling you now, so that you know. You're my grandson; you must know these things, so you won't be a shame to your grandfather. I have a favor to ask of you now. Listen to me.
No one knows when their time may come – you may die young, or in your old age, no one can tell. But it's important that the order be right – the old should go first, then the young, when they grow older. That's nature, you can't contradict nature. The problem is, you can never be prepared, so you can't know when the moment is come and ask somebody to see you off. There's no way. If you don't believe me, ask the Indian. Your grandma was lucky – she died in a hospital. I sat with her until the end and I was saying to myself, "will she tell me, will she help me with some sign, let me know how it is, so I can be prepared when my turn comes." But she didn't say anything; she just died, just like this, with her eyes closed. She was breathing and then she was breathing no more. But she was not alone! Someone was there to see her off. I was there, the nurse was there, there was another woman on the next bed, and the doctor came to confirm her death. So she was seen off by four people. She was lucky, your grandmother was, all her life she was lucky, fuck her… Don't laugh. These things are important, a matter of life and death, so to speak.
Now, this is what I want to ask of you – you must help me organize my departure. I am 87 years old now, I probably don't have much time left, who knows… That's why I would like to be seen off now, so when my time comes, I would know that there was somebody to see me off. Quiet now, listen to me. You know how these things work, these phones, computers and such. I want you to call the family and ask them to come here, to the village. I want you to call all of them, you tell them "grandpa is dying, come home, he wants to say good-bye." That's not a lie, I told you earlier – one starts dying the moment one's born, but it's little by little, and then they grow old and die entirely. Die fully. So you tell them "grandpa is dying, come and say good-bye." You tell each one of them, then whoever wants to will come. I can't force them, but if anyone wants to see me off, they'll come. Stop it now, don't look at me like this.
You can say you don't know what's happened. Nothing's happened, it's in the nature of things. We'll gather together here, we'll put out the big tables under the cherry tree, we'll eat and drink, I'll go around the table to raise a toast with everybody. I'll say "cheers and good-bye", that's what I'll say, "cheers and good-bye" or even "cheers and farewell", because we won't be seeing each other again, cheers and farewell, farewell and cheers. And when we have eaten our full and drunk all there is to drink, I'll go to bed, I'll cover myself with a warm blanket, because when dying, one gets cold, you know, and I'll start waiting. Let him come, the one those fools call "merciful," let him come when he will. Someone will have seen me off and that's what's important.
Say, you will help me, won't you, my boy? You will help me and you won't be sad. Raise your head now, let me see you. Stop it. There's no reason to be sad. What is this? It's all in the nature of things.
Toshka Ivanova (1981) was born in Stara Zagora. She holds a bachelor’s degree in public relations from Sofia University. As a young author, she was nominated for and won some local literary contests, such as: Milena Avonedi, Europe in School, LiterNet. In 2012, she published her book Positive, which describes her personal experience of coping with hepatitis C. Being the first such story told out of anonymity, the book drew wide public and media attention. Positive has been translated in English and published online with Amazon. It entered the Amazon US Top 10 e-books on the topic of hepatitis. Her second book – a collection of short stories called How Many Times a Day We Don’t Die, will be published this year by Janet 45 publishing house.