At the time about which I am going to tell you, Borko had not yet become the head of the veterinarian clinic in the town of Radomir. I saw him many times going for leisurely strolls—a twenty-three year old strapping fellow with a thin moustache and black smiling eyes.
I had a daughter, Radka. I gave birth to three sons before her – one after the other, like beads of a rosary. They grew up sturdy guys, but when Radka came to life, my husband’s eyes brimmed with joyful tears— he had set his heart so much on having a daughter. Every time I gave birth to a son he gave me a kiss instead of a thank you.
My husband, who was my lord and my best friend, was a shoemaker. Day in day out, he cobbled old shoes and sandals for our neighbors and I took care of the children, the cows, the hens, and calves. Thank God, we had always had enough bread for everybody in the kitchen cupboard. It turned out the years I had waited for Radka were worth my while. She grew up very pretty, her eyebrows were thin like a tendril of a vine, and her eyes were warm. Our house was not a rich place, just a roof above our heads, but Radka shone like the proud sun.
Borko, the young vet, crossed our street seven or eight times a day, but he neither courted Radka nor spoke to her. So, I was calm. She was too young.
The richest man in Radomir, whose estate touched the Greek border to the South, was called Kosta. He had a daughter, too. Her name was Adela. I wouldn’t say Adela was a bad thing to look at: she was tallish, and pretty. Borko was said to be looking for a bride, so it was very easy to calculate that he’d choose Kosta’s daughter.
No one doubted the match would be a success. Borko could cure sick cattle and made good money. Kosta, the biggest shot in town, wouldn’t say no if the young vet volunteered to become his son-in-law. On the contrary, the old grouch would let every man drink a free bottle of brandy in his restaurant if that happened.
It was in the beginning of June that Kosta started hinting, “My stallion Thunderbolt is simply no good any more. I don’t know what’s the matter with him. He refuses to gallop when I ride him. The only living thing I love more than Thunderbolt is my daughter Adela.”
So far so good. But the big land owner said something else that made young and old click their tongues. My neighbor, the baker’s wife, told me that Kosta had stressed that, “If that greenhorn Borko cures my Thunderbolt, I’ll let him marry Adela and I’ll be as good as my word!”
The baker’s wife told me that Borko went to Kosta’s stables, examined the stallion carefully, slapped his back, nodded his head and said, “Mr. Kosta, your Thunderbolt is safe and sound. He is in exuberant health. Why did you call me out?”
“He’s not safe and sound at all,” the big bug seethed. “Don’t you see the way his head’s hanging low as if the blacksmith has clobbered him on the skull with the heaviest hammer?”
“You know better than me what your servants have done to your horse.” Borko asked.
“What?” Kosta exploded.
“Your farmhands have been plucking wild poppies for a week now, Mr. Kosta. They must’ve made a concoction of poppies and rum and forced Thunderbolt to drink it. That’s why the poor horse reels and staggers, and I’m positive that the blacksmith hasn’t clobbered him on the head with the heaviest hammer.”
“Who put that nonsense into your head?” Kosta shouted.
“One of your servants bragged to me the other day that you paid him ten levs for a basket full of wild poppies.”
The landowner gaped; his eye looked bloodshot as if somebody had attached leeches on his neck. Finally he said, “Therefore you don’t like Adela, eh?”
“I came here to cure your horse, Mr. Kosta,” Borko answered. “Your daughter is blessed with beauty, I grant you that. But I cannot cure a healthy horse, Sir.”
From that day on, whenever Kosta heard someone utter Borko’s name in public, he took to mumbling under his breath, his face black like a bull’s horn. The young vet couldn’t care less. He went on taking long walks along our street. When occasionally I met him, I treated him to a piece of Turkish delight, and he didn’t even glance at my daughter Radka. So I was calm.
“She’s too young,” my husband would always grumble, making me wonder how we’d separate from Radka one day when she’d get married.
Borko often came to my backyard to have a look at the calves, and we chatted away like old friends. I was a middle-aged woman and my neighbors said I had the gift of the gab.
The harvest began. We collected and drove home a big truck full of wheat. Life went on like a heavily loaded caravan, a happy day now and then, followed by many hungry weeks.
One day I noticed my daughter stole out of the house into the cornfield, all alone. “Oh, come off it, girl!” I said to myself. “What would you be looking for in the wilderness?” but I was too lazy to dig deep into that matter. On the following day, however, Radka again slipped out of our backyard into the same cornfield.
I shadowed her and lo and behold! I saw her pluck wild poppies. I said to myself, “Let’s see what she’ll do next.” I was a shrewd woman: how could I hold a shoemaker of a husband in my house for twenty-four years while all other ladies in town, most of them younger and prettier than me, visited his shop and he measured how long and wide their feet were to make new shoes for them?
It was May 6th the following day, the holiday of courage. My three sons went out and my husband said he’d drop in the pub for a drink. Only Radka, my daughter, hung about the sink in the kitchen, washing the dishes very diligently indeed.
“Hey, mom, won’t you visit your friend, the baker’s wife? She said she baked cookies for you.”
“I sure will,” I answered but instead of going out I slipped into the wine cellar. “Let me see what’s eating her,” I thought. Why should she be so keen on staying at home all alone on the very Day of Courage? Soon it was no mystery to me any more. The little minx took out the wild poppies from the cupboard; put them into the biggest cauldron we had at home, poured all my husband’s rum into it, then kindled a big fire. The wild poppies boiled, hissed, and bubbled while I sweated in the cellar. Anyway, I managed to keep my mouth shut all the while.
After an hour, my pretty daughter mixed the foul smelling concoction with water, then brought it to Marko, our loyal donkey, and made the poor creature drink the nasty thing. Marko didn’t want to dip its mouth in the poison; he kicked and jumped, and spat, but I knew something for sure: could the poor animal outdo my Radka in mulishness? No, not by a long shot!
She pressed Marko’s head, scratched his back and gave him half a bag of sugar till she wheedled the wretched beast into slurping the smelly slops. In the very beginning, Marko tried to turn a somersault then he threw his head back and started braying most powerfully. After a couple of minutes, however, the beast prostrated himself in the middle of the backyard, kicked feebly twice and became quiet. I was afraid our only donkey was about to meet his maker very soon. Radka, the child I loved more than everything in the world, abandoned the sick animal and went out accompanied by three or four other girls as flighty as she was, while the donkey was on his deathbed!
My husband, my lord and best friend, came home from the pub. He was tipsy and merry, but when the sight of the dying Marko met his eye, his hands flew to his heart in despair. What could we do? We had no other choice and called Borko, the vet.
There he came and entered my backyard – a real hunk, his eyes agleam, and my Radka dilly-dallied by the hen-coop feeding the hens. In fact, the vet didn’t even notice her, if you asked me. He bent over the donkey, slapped his back, and pulled on his tail. Finally he said, “It is very serious, Sir. Your beast of burden will die.”
“How come he dies?” I asked, for I knew very well what was wrong with Marko. “Yesterday the animal was as strong as the cliffs on the hill behind our house.”
“Well, yes, he might have been perfectly healthy an hour ago, but there is a very dangerous disease the donkeys in our area suffer from, you know,” Borko said. “I will try to cure him, but…” He left the words hanging in grim silence.
“Why do you say ‘but’?” my husband asked.
Borko didn’t answer him.
My friends knew I liked to take occasional naps in the afternoon; I was a mother of four so I hoped nobody would call me a lazy woman. One day I was just about to doze off when I caught a glimpse of something that struck me as very peculiar: Borko, the vet, gave my youngest son a bulging sack and the boy took an armful of wild poppies out of it. The following day our wretched Marko could neither eat nor bray any more. We gave up all hope so again we sent for Borko.
The young vet came and said to my husband, “Well, Sir, I’ll keep Marko alive and kicking, but perhaps you remember what Mr. Kosta offered to give me if I cured his Thunderbolt.”
“I do,” my husband answered. “He offered you Adela.”
“You have a daughter as well,” Borko ventured.
My husband shouted, “Give me a knife to cut this crook’s throat!” and after that he cussed a lot, using lousy words.
After two weeks, our donkey recovered his health. It was at that time that Radka got engaged to Borko, although she was too young. On that day, my husband, my lord and my best friend, was stricken with grief and drank himself stone drunk. I thought it was the happiest day in my life and drank myself drunk with joy by his side.