Georgi Tenev



When he was young, he would go to the village to stay with relatives. They sent him there during school breaks, on summer days like today’s. The Architect was a young city kid. At first he didn’t know anybody in the village, didn’t have any friends. But then he found the room with the books. It had no windows, and all its walls were covered in bookshelves. These volumes had belonged to somebody who no longer lived there. One of his mother’s cousins, brothers, or other relatives. Decades earlier, the family had been big, but nobody remained from it now. One of the relatives had been a doctor, another an engineer, who’d studied abroad, probably in Germany. That’s why the library contained atlases, encyclopedias, and many of those old, pocket-sized adventure novels from before the war. It also had carefully bound volumes of travelogues, short stories, philosophy books, biographies. Though he spent the whole summer there, it wasn’t enough for him to read them all. He paged through the books, and liked even just holding them in his hands. It was strange that so much time had passed and yet the dust had not permeated them. Perhaps it was because the room was always kept closed and had no windows. The boy spent more and more of his time there, he liked to read. He noticed that somebody before him had once used a copying pencil to underline passages, with long and thin lines, inside the books. It must have been some diligent, attentive reader. He found underlined passages regularly, almost in each book he took down from the shelves. Traces leftover from the past, from one of the owners of the library, the dead relatives. And one day . . . He had previously put a book back in its place on the shelf, but now wanted to continue reading it. He knew exactly where he had placed it. He took it down again, sat in the creaking chair, paged through it, and looked for the right page. He remembered how far he had gotten. But when he opened it to that page . . . He didn’t just feel fear, but for the first time in his life felt terror. He was still almost a child and this became engraved in his memory. The insurmountable sense of paralyzing terror when faced with an invisible danger. Because the page now had new passages underlined and marked. With the copying pencil. They hadn’t been there the day before, he remembered quite well. They hadn’t been there before but had appeared during the night, unclear from where, and how. Somebody was reading the book. Somebody else besides him. He didn’t remember getting out of the library. He ran outside and spent an entire hour among the cherry trees, underneath the spider webs, trembling. He never set foot in the room with the books again. This remained his childhood’s most frightening moment. He didn’t tell anyone about his escape from the library. It was only later that he found out. One of his mother’s aunts had had a son who had disappeared during one of the first nights after the coup d’état of September 9, 1944. He was an engineer, educated in Germany. He was rounded up together with other men from the village, who were never seen again. A firing squad executed them in the woods, and some of them were handed down official sentences by the People’s Court after the fact. The son, though, had a strange stroke of luck—the shot passed through his arm and only then went into his chest, so it missed his heart. This is how he survived among the corpses. During the night, he dragged himself back to the house, and pushed in the door. They took him in, washed the blood from the threshold, burned his clothes. They treated his wound. He survived but had to go into hiding. He couldn’t leave the house. That’s why they sectioned off a part of the room, turning it into an almost invisible narrow hallway, just over a meter wide. They put in a fake wall, which looked like the back of a bookshelf. He lived there, hidden between the two walls, for twelve years. When the boy visited during his summer breaks, the man was there. He never met the boy eye to eye, never knew his nephew. He must’ve heard him clattering around the room, taking books down from the shelves, climbing on top of the chair, then coming back down. He stayed there, in his little space, narrow as a hallway. Only his sister knew about him. But afraid they might come and take her brother away again, afraid of losing him forever, she told nobody. He only came out into the windowless library at night. He would move the wooden plank aside and find himself on the other side of the enclosing. On the back of the plank, he would draw lines with the dry point of a dip pen. He marked the days, wrote something with a piece of chalk, then erased it with the pale palm of his hand, then made new marks with the chalk, in an effort to keep track of what day and month it was. He only came out into that room to walk between its walls, like a prisoner. And he read his books until morning. In the only room where he could turn on the light without being seen from the outside. He read books and underlined passages, this was his habit. And one day, he came across the book that the boy was reading at the same time.


 —Translated from the Bulgarian by Ekaterina Petrova


Excerpt from Bulgarian Roses (published by Colibri Publishers, 2016)


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