A middle-aged man came into the train compartment, cradling in his arms a large rag-doll dressed in a child’s jacket.
“Excuse me, are there two free seats here?”
The other passengers exchanged glances and didn’t reply.
“Make yourself comfortable,” I said, pointing at the seat across from me. “Except there’s only one.”
“No matter, she’ll sit with me.”
He took off her jacket, straightened her hair, settled her onto the edge of the seat and sat down next to her. Then he set her on his lap. The others in the compartment filed out to look for seats elsewhere. That left just the two of us—or rather, the three of us.
“What’s her name?” I asked.
“Come on, tell the nice man what your name is. Hm?”
The doll kept silent.
“Say Maaa, riii… Her name is Maria. She’s shy. You know how kids are at this age.”
“Hi, Maria. How old are you?”
“She’s five,” the father replied. “Only she doesn’t like talking much. Isn’t that right?” He smiled and playfully tweaked her nose. Her nose was an exquisite pink button. “Want to sit next to the window? Come on, sweetie. Let’s see what’s outside. Ooh, look at that cow staring at us all serious, and that donkey over there, do you see him? No, no, over there, by that tree.”
And they started counting how many cows, donkeys, chickens, horses, and sheep they saw from the train. Then luck smiled upon them and they even saw storks, which were still circling around the burned-out fields of late August. He told her an old story about the stork and the fox. She really loves these kinds of stories, he winked at me conspiratorially. Actually, any kind of story. At that moment a middle-aged matron barged into the compartment without saying hello, set down her suitcase, fixed her gaze on the man talking to the doll, snatched up her suitcase again, opened the door up again, spat out perverts and left with a bang. The man put his hands over the girl’s ears, hugged her and smiled awkwardly. (Her ears were two long mother-of-pearl mussel shells.)
“People don’t watch what they say in front of children.” They stayed like that for a long time, with her snuggled up against him.
“She’s tired. Sleep, go ahead and sleep, honey.”
He carefully laid her down on the seat and put the jacket over her.
It was clear that the man wanted to tell me something, but didn’t know how to begin. At that moment the conductor came in, nodded, tossed a distracted glance at the child asleep beneath the jacket, collected our tickets and left. He didn’t notice anything at all, I sighed with relief. The whole time I had been on tenterhooks, afraid that he would raise a fuss, would tear off the jacket and see who was sleeping beneath it, that he would curse the man out and call the train’s policeman. I realized that I was most afraid for… the child, that is, the doll. I didn’t want them to harm her. This is the place to say that I am completely normal, even if I do write stories. I know that complicates things a bit, but in every other way I am perfectly all right.
After a short while the man nevertheless got up his courage and began. He glanced at the child and said flat-out that he had a favor to ask of me, but he would understand if I refused. I encouraged him to go on. We were speaking in whispers, so as not to wake her.
“I’m checking into the hospital,” he said, “but she doesn’t know that yet. I’ve got some lumps here, the doctors said it’s gonna be a bloodbath, then I’ll need a month or so of chemo, no one knows for how long. If it wasn’t for her, I’d just tell ‘em to forget the whole business, but…”
The man smoothed down the jacket over her, tucking it in around her shoulders.
“I don’t want her to go in there with me. She wouldn’t be able to stand it, it’s no place for her. But she can’t get by on her own, either, you see how she is.”
“Isn’t there someone…”
“There’s no one. Her mother’s gone… It’s just the two of us.”
I didn’t understand whether she was dead or had left him. I didn’t ask.
“Maybe you could put her in some orphanage, temporarily,” I said, immediately realizing the utter futility of the suggestion.
“I went around, asked at a few… but you can imagine… They refuse to hear talk of it anywhere. They tell me I’m crazy, that there’s no such child on the books. While in one place, they even take in dogs. Maria, the poor little thing, she got really scared.”
We sat in silence for some time, darkness was falling.
“Look,” he said, “you’re the only one who’s ever talked to her. Can I leave her with you… temporarily?”
The question was asked with all the frankness of a man at his wits’ end.
“Could I… for a month or two… She won’t be any trouble, she doesn’t even eat… I’ll leave you some money, of course… All she needs is to know that she’s not alone. You can talk to her, read her stories, she understands everything… What do you say?”
We sat like that for several minutes. The compartment grew dark, we didn’t turn on the light. The man had to get off at the next station, in the city where he would have his operation.
I must have said yes. On a slip of paper the man wrote his name, the name of the hospital, the ward and the doctor who would be performing the surgery. I gave him my phone number and promised to call after the operation, I said we would come visit him. I told him I was stepping out for a smoke. I left them alone to say their goodbyes. He didn’t wake her up, but just kept smoothing down the jacket covering her. The train stopped. He got up and put on his coat without taking his eyes off her, I helped him take down his luggage and only then did I notice how thin he was. He managed to get off the train at the last moment and stood in front of the compartment window. I moved into the seat next to the child and waved. I gave him the thumbs up to let him know everything was okay, and the train took off and the man was left in the darkness.
When we reached Sofia, I carefully picked the girl up, she was still sleepy and rested her head on my shoulder. I took the two bags in my other hand and got off the train.
Two years have passed since then. Her father died a day after the operation. Maria is seven now, and she’s playing on the floor next to me.
—translated by Angela Rodel
Georgi Gospodinov (1968) is Bulgarian poet, writer and playwright. His debut novel, Natural Novel, was published in more than twenty languages. The Physics of Sorrow, his next novel, won the 2016 international Jan Michalski Prize for Literature and was a finalist for the American PEN Translation Prize, the Best Translated Book Award (BTBA), Premio Strega Europeo and Gregor von Rezzori award. An animated short film based on Gospodinov’s short story Blind Vaysha was nominated for a 2017 Academy Award. He is currently a 2017-2018 fellow at the Cullman Center, New York Public Library.
Angela Rodel is a freelance literary translator living in Sofia, Bulgaria. She has a BA from Yale University and an MA from UCLA in linguistics. Her translations of Milen Ruskov’s Thrown into Nature, Zachary Karabashliev’s 18% Gray, and Angel Igov’s A Short Tale of Shame have been published by Open Letter Books as part of the Elizabeth Kostova Foundation Bulgarian Novel contest. Her translation of Georgi Gospodinov’s The Physics of Sorrow has also been published by Open Letter Books, and her translation of Ivailo Petrov’s Wolf Hunt was published by Archipelago Books in 2017.