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Holy Light
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ISBN
978-619-150-731-3
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Published
20 January 2016

Holy Light

“Alloying political sci-fi with striking eroticism, the stories in Holy Light depict a world of endless, wearying revolution and apocalypse.”
PEN Translation Fund, announcing Translation Grant Winner Angela Rodel

“Utterly fascinating. Irony is combined with sincerity, realism and expressive detail with fantasy and dream. There is something very bracing, strange, it has irony and a complete kind of hilarity and sincerity about it – I was very, very struck.”
Siri Hustvedt on “Returning from the Hague,” a story from Holy Light published in GRANTA online

About the Author
Georgi  Tenev

GEORGE TENEV is a writer, screenwriter and playwright. He is the author of the novels "Party House" (Best Bulgarian Novel of the Year of VIK Foundation, 2007), "Christo and the Free Love," "Mr. M" and the short story collection "Holy Light" (awarded a scholarship for translation of PEN American center).

Excerpt

Georgi Tenev - Holy Light

The Valley

In despair, he left Moscow. He was looking at his handwriting on the customs declaration, chaotic and nondescript, that’s how it seemed to him. It was too late to change now, he had already reached a certain age. He didn’t see any options, he didn’t see a direction or an exit. In first class they offered easy emancipation, perhaps even electrocution, but he was traveling economy class where they wouldn’t even serve him food.

His suitcase was small, but heavy due to the bricks and the moist bread. He sat in the third class section and began masturbating. His penis hurt from the accumulated exhaustion and frequent friction. His hands weren’t clean, they felt swollen from carrying his luggage, they felt unpleasantly warm. He rubbed hard, but he was barely able to secrete any semen. He collected about five milliliters. The machine in the hallway gave him four dollars and didn’t print out a receipt. Depressed, he went back to his seat. Even if he started up with the friction again it would still take a half an hour. And he would only produce a few drops. If the ejaculation was less than two milliliters, the machine wouldn’t take it.

He sat and touched the four dollars through the cloth of his pants. 

7:30 AM. The escalator brought him out onto the street. It was dusty and the air seemed thinned to him. He clenched his teeth and waved at the cabs. One of them pulled away from the taxi stand and lumbered over to him. It moved somehow between the lane and the sidewalk, uncertain of whether to stop. The door didn’t open for a long time, but finally the locks clicked. He caught the whiff of an air freshener. He knew that just one wrong smell could set off his allergies. Induce the full cessation of ejaculation, cause swelling.

Despite the fresh scent of lemon, inside the taxi there was a hint of rot.

The hotel was the same. He went to his room and laid down. After a time he got up, without remembering whether he’d slept or lain there with his eyes closed. He didn’t feel rested. He washed up in the bathroom, the water wasn’t warm, but it wasn’t cold either. The soap didn’t lather. He left the bathroom feeling like he hadn’t bathed at all. He got dressed and left.

The taxi stopped in front of number nine and practically threw him out, the door slammed behind his back. He climbed the stone steps and rang the doorbell. As he waited he didn’t look around, but he felt the unpleasant gaze of the video camera mounted in the glass sphere above his head. Something in there was jiggling and whirring, the lens was focusing. The door opened, but he didn’t see anyone. The staircase inside was lit up. There was a red carpet covering the steps, held in place by brass rods. For a second his head started spinning, he seemed to be back on that bridge above the river, with the quivering ropes on either side and the chasm above the muddy water. The whistling of the wind, the crests of the underwater rocks jutting through the surface. The shaking of his legs. He gathered his strength and took a step. The terror passed. The soft red carpet, the wood. The handrail to the right, the paneling to the left. He knew that he was in this place, here and here alone, and not above the river, not in Africa. No more Africa ever again, he told himself and swallowed hard, it was scary to think about that now. He just had to climb the stairs.

* * *

“I visited libraries and read a lot of books,” he said once they’d ushered him into the room. In the beginning, of course, they started with questions such as how did he feel and what had he been doing with his time since he’d been back on this side the equator. So, libraries, is that right?

“Well, did you find anything?”

He swallowed hard, he didn’t have the strength to answer, he didn’t have strength to waste. So straight out with it.

“I want a loan.”

“You know what will happen if you take out a loan.”

“I know.”

“We don’t like that.”

“What?” he asked.

“We don’t like that you agree so easily. We’ll have to give you a very thorough examination.”

He remembered his parents, he remembered the taste of meat. “Meat – now that’s what makes a man!” the group leader during their training would say, just as his father before him had said it. His memories were watered down. Air entered and exited his lungs of its own accord. He got up and left. He didn’t want to receive anything more from the foundation, he didn’t want their money, their support, their associated programs. Now he didn’t even want the loan anymore. If he took the credit, it would mean that his seminal vesicles would become theirs for all practical purposes. He would have to give 100 milliliters a day or they would remove them in order to transplant them into some anonymous recipient. But nevermind, he’d already turned them down. He was almost as downcast as when he left Madrid, as when he flew out of Moscow. He had wasted a lot of money on those flights. But at least he liked flying. That was all over now, however.

* * *

He went to a job interview. They hired him, it was a mixed school. He had applied to be a language teacher, but they put him in charge of gym classes instead. On the second day he got sick of hanging from the bars while the children just watched him. He organized a theory class for them in a regular classroom like the other teachers had. Using illustrations he described various kinds of exercises. He sketched out a chart with equations for muscle mass. The kids were making noise and not listening to him. But who would listen to a monkey-teacher, covered with hair? It didn’t bother him, though, the children radiated something good and natural. He met their eyes and saw the smiles. During the middle of the class he left them to copy out the charts on their own. He also sat and stared at the sheet of paper in front of him. It was a sketch he’d prepared before the class, a chart with muscle mass and a small diagram of the horizontal bars and the uneven parallel bars. The classroom was buzzing. He found it pleasant. All of a sudden some kind of anxiety, some vague thought seized him. He jumped, jerked up his head. Chills ran down his back. He couldn’t figure out what had happened, yet he knew that he’d forgotten something. He hadn’t done something, something important. Then he suddenly remembered the machine, there in the hallway. He hadn’t masturbated. How long had it been? He got up, his legs swayed. He slowly made his way towards the door. He couldn’t have run even if he had wanted to, so he simply walked, he had to reach it. How many hours late was he? He didn’t know. He felt like he had just woken up, but the nightmare was only beginning now, the dream wouldn’t stop. As he opened the door, he unzipped his pants and fished his penis out of his underwear. He stepped through the doorway already rubbing himself with a shaking hand. How late was he? He reached the middle of the hallway. He didn’t see the machine. It had to be around here somewhere. He heard a scream. He turned around – the kids were piled in the doorway. It was the same with the other classrooms – one by one the doors opened. They looked at him. He heard shouts. He continued rubbing his penis but sensed that nothing would come of it. What had happened, why was there no semen? Hours had gone by, he’d missed a few sessions, he was absolutely, irreversibly late.

He woke from the dream as from asphyxiation. He jumped up, then sat down on the bed. He didn’t have the strength to stand up. He squatted by the wall. He knew that this couldn’t continue.

The airplane traced the curving white lines on the runway. The newspapers and magazines had already been distributed, the doors of the luggage compartments had been slammed shut, the passengers were sitting in their seats, having been counted for the third and final time. The standard lines echoed over the intercom. He crossed the little galley in front of the first-class cabin, pulled down his seat, fastened his seatbelt, and, sitting facing the cabin, smiled encouragingly. Then he shifted his gaze to the right to the porthole, through which the airport landscape was moving with increasing speed. Now he was finally not thinking of anything, words flew from his head, never to return, already beyond the will of thought, swirling like a kite on the waves of the wind as long as takeoff lasted. Then the illuminated symbols on the sign board went out with a single sound and he unfastened his seatbelt, folded up the retractable seat and pulled the curtain that separated the galley from the first-class cabin. From his severed veins the blood trickled slowly, almost without gushes. His heart hadn’t stopped, but it was calm.

He had always dreamed of becoming an airline steward, of being simultaneously useful and flying, of being with people yet at the same time somehow alone. Up high everyone is alone, with all that air underneath them. There was no time to get lost in thought and that was wonderful, the words flew from his head, only official phrases are necessary. Today the sky was empty, only far away above the horizon a few motionless clouds lingered. The engine’s rumbling increased, bodies were pressed against backrests. He smiled encouragingly at the passengers in the first row of seats and again looked out the window. The rosary of words had broken, he knew that this time he wouldn’t need to fix it. Just like the vibrating ropes of the bridge above the river, above the chasm, that have finally torn loose. A flight above the muddy water, not a fall. The whistling of the wind, the crests of the white smoky clouds, trailing off into infinity. In the glass of the window that infinite blue appeared, the one that fills up your eyes to the point of pain. The light intensified, pierced by something. By the stitches and bandages on his wrists. And the painful tube washing all the vitriol he’d swallowed out of his stomach. And the silhouette of the foundation employee:

“Why did you do that? We need you.”

“What do you use my sperm for?”

“Come on, now, that’s enough.”

“Tell me, what do you use it for?”

“You know I can’t tell you that.”

The employee laid something flat and shiny on the white nightstand next to his bed. Tinfoil, chocolate, he guessed.

“And in the end, we’re hoping that someday you’ll remember the way back to your home village. That your memory will return and you’ll lead us to the Valley. We haven’t given up, we’re still waiting.”

“I can’t... I don’t...” he tried to speak, but the air leaked out through the tube. He saw it in front of his nose, like an extension of his own face, he looked to the left and to the right, at the white bed, at his hairy monkey hands shaved around the bandages that covered his wounds.

“We believe that you know, but we also believe that you have forgotten. That’s why we don’t insist. Someday you’ll understand what you have to do. You’ll understand that it’s the correct decision, and not a betrayal. We really are in need.”

“There is no such place!” he wanted to tell them.

“You know best.”

“It no longer exists,” he wanted to answer, he wanted to sit up in bed. “There are no villages there. Everything was obliterated, that’s why I ran away, otherwise I wouldn’t have...”

“You know best. You know that such a place exists. The Valley.”

“Why? What do you need it for?”

“Because there are very few like you left.”

“What do you use my spermatozoa for?”

“Come on, that’s really enough now.”

The employee nudged the little tinfoil-wrapped box on the nightstand. He now saw that it wasn’t actually a box of chocolate. And it wasn’t a box.

Of course, he could imagine how for weeks at a time the paratroopers would land on the plateau. Regular squadrons and special forces. After that they would head down into the valley. Perhaps during the first week, or perhaps during the second, on some random day – it would happen on July 8, for example, perhaps during the hottest part of the day – they would enter his village. Of course, he wouldn’t have told them he was born there and it would be easy to arrange for him to be with the military forces on the day when they… he could imagine it. Just as it had been in every anthropoid settlement, so it would be there… Just as it would be everywhere. It would already be clear to him by then that it wasn’t just a question of castration. Nobody should harbor any illusions, this was an official UN operation. Even roundabout wording and humanitarian phrasing was unnecessary. They needed spermatozoa, this time with no mistakes, they couldn’t afford to waste another half-century in the struggle against AIDS. The automated extraction of seminal fluid would begin right there on the ground, under the supervision of the Darwin Institute. In the meantime the need for it would have intensified, he could just picture it.

For that reason he now returned in his thoughts above the river, to the bridge, with the quivering ropes on either side and the chasm above the muddy water. His tribe was crossing slowly, along with the women, children and elderly. He was making sure no one was left behind, that’s why he was last. The whistling of the wind, the crests of the underwater rocks jutting through the surface. The loosening of the ropes, when the weight finally freed itself and everything soared into the emptiness.

Even he himself, strangely enough, is amazed at the ease, at the tranquility, at the freedom with which the machine extracts the drops of seminal fluid from his vesicles and afterwards removes its needle, while he could be both there and here, both above the river and in an airplane flying kilometers above the ground. In any case, the monkey never leaves The Valley, and the airplane isn’t actually visible, it was up there, but now it’s gone. This is soothsaying based on the trail, which, like a white tail, like a faraway whip, cuts through the sky.

Georgi Tenev - Holy Light

The Valley

In despair, he left Moscow. He was looking at his handwriting on the customs declaration, chaotic and nondescript, that’s how it seemed to him. It was too late to change now, he had already reached a certain age. He didn’t see any options, he didn’t see a direction or an exit. In first class they offered easy emancipation, perhaps even electrocution, but he was traveling economy class where they wouldn’t even serve him food.

His suitcase was small, but heavy due to the bricks and the moist bread. He sat in the third class section and began masturbating. His penis hurt from the accumulated exhaustion and frequent friction. His hands weren’t clean, they felt swollen from carrying his luggage, they felt unpleasantly warm. He rubbed hard, but he was barely able to secrete any semen. He collected about five milliliters. The machine in the hallway gave him four dollars and didn’t print out a receipt. Depressed, he went back to his seat. Even if he started up with the friction again it would still take a half an hour. And he would only produce a few drops. If the ejaculation was less than two milliliters, the machine wouldn’t take it.

He sat and touched the four dollars through the cloth of his pants. 

7:30 AM. The escalator brought him out onto the street. It was dusty and the air seemed thinned to him. He clenched his teeth and waved at the cabs. One of them pulled away from the taxi stand and lumbered over to him. It moved somehow between the lane and the sidewalk, uncertain of whether to stop. The door didn’t open for a long time, but finally the locks clicked. He caught the whiff of an air freshener. He knew that just one wrong smell could set off his allergies. Induce the full cessation of ejaculation, cause swelling.

Despite the fresh scent of lemon, inside the taxi there was a hint of rot.

The hotel was the same. He went to his room and laid down. After a time he got up, without remembering whether he’d slept or lain there with his eyes closed. He didn’t feel rested. He washed up in the bathroom, the water wasn’t warm, but it wasn’t cold either. The soap didn’t lather. He left the bathroom feeling like he hadn’t bathed at all. He got dressed and left.

The taxi stopped in front of number nine and practically threw him out, the door slammed behind his back. He climbed the stone steps and rang the doorbell. As he waited he didn’t look around, but he felt the unpleasant gaze of the video camera mounted in the glass sphere above his head. Something in there was jiggling and whirring, the lens was focusing. The door opened, but he didn’t see anyone. The staircase inside was lit up. There was a red carpet covering the steps, held in place by brass rods. For a second his head started spinning, he seemed to be back on that bridge above the river, with the quivering ropes on either side and the chasm above the muddy water. The whistling of the wind, the crests of the underwater rocks jutting through the surface. The shaking of his legs. He gathered his strength and took a step. The terror passed. The soft red carpet, the wood. The handrail to the right, the paneling to the left. He knew that he was in this place, here and here alone, and not above the river, not in Africa. No more Africa ever again, he told himself and swallowed hard, it was scary to think about that now. He just had to climb the stairs.

* * *

“I visited libraries and read a lot of books,” he said once they’d ushered him into the room. In the beginning, of course, they started with questions such as how did he feel and what had he been doing with his time since he’d been back on this side the equator. So, libraries, is that right?

“Well, did you find anything?”

He swallowed hard, he didn’t have the strength to answer, he didn’t have strength to waste. So straight out with it.

“I want a loan.”

“You know what will happen if you take out a loan.”

“I know.”

“We don’t like that.”

“What?” he asked.

“We don’t like that you agree so easily. We’ll have to give you a very thorough examination.”

He remembered his parents, he remembered the taste of meat. “Meat – now that’s what makes a man!” the group leader during their training would say, just as his father before him had said it. His memories were watered down. Air entered and exited his lungs of its own accord. He got up and left. He didn’t want to receive anything more from the foundation, he didn’t want their money, their support, their associated programs. Now he didn’t even want the loan anymore. If he took the credit, it would mean that his seminal vesicles would become theirs for all practical purposes. He would have to give 100 milliliters a day or they would remove them in order to transplant them into some anonymous recipient. But nevermind, he’d already turned them down. He was almost as downcast as when he left Madrid, as when he flew out of Moscow. He had wasted a lot of money on those flights. But at least he liked flying. That was all over now, however.

* * *

He went to a job interview. They hired him, it was a mixed school. He had applied to be a language teacher, but they put him in charge of gym classes instead. On the second day he got sick of hanging from the bars while the children just watched him. He organized a theory class for them in a regular classroom like the other teachers had. Using illustrations he described various kinds of exercises. He sketched out a chart with equations for muscle mass. The kids were making noise and not listening to him. But who would listen to a monkey-teacher, covered with hair? It didn’t bother him, though, the children radiated something good and natural. He met their eyes and saw the smiles. During the middle of the class he left them to copy out the charts on their own. He also sat and stared at the sheet of paper in front of him. It was a sketch he’d prepared before the class, a chart with muscle mass and a small diagram of the horizontal bars and the uneven parallel bars. The classroom was buzzing. He found it pleasant. All of a sudden some kind of anxiety, some vague thought seized him. He jumped, jerked up his head. Chills ran down his back. He couldn’t figure out what had happened, yet he knew that he’d forgotten something. He hadn’t done something, something important. Then he suddenly remembered the machine, there in the hallway. He hadn’t masturbated. How long had it been? He got up, his legs swayed. He slowly made his way towards the door. He couldn’t have run even if he had wanted to, so he simply walked, he had to reach it. How many hours late was he? He didn’t know. He felt like he had just woken up, but the nightmare was only beginning now, the dream wouldn’t stop. As he opened the door, he unzipped his pants and fished his penis out of his underwear. He stepped through the doorway already rubbing himself with a shaking hand. How late was he? He reached the middle of the hallway. He didn’t see the machine. It had to be around here somewhere. He heard a scream. He turned around – the kids were piled in the doorway. It was the same with the other classrooms – one by one the doors opened. They looked at him. He heard shouts. He continued rubbing his penis but sensed that nothing would come of it. What had happened, why was there no semen? Hours had gone by, he’d missed a few sessions, he was absolutely, irreversibly late.

He woke from the dream as from asphyxiation. He jumped up, then sat down on the bed. He didn’t have the strength to stand up. He squatted by the wall. He knew that this couldn’t continue.

The airplane traced the curving white lines on the runway. The newspapers and magazines had already been distributed, the doors of the luggage compartments had been slammed shut, the passengers were sitting in their seats, having been counted for the third and final time. The standard lines echoed over the intercom. He crossed the little galley in front of the first-class cabin, pulled down his seat, fastened his seatbelt, and, sitting facing the cabin, smiled encouragingly. Then he shifted his gaze to the right to the porthole, through which the airport landscape was moving with increasing speed. Now he was finally not thinking of anything, words flew from his head, never to return, already beyond the will of thought, swirling like a kite on the waves of the wind as long as takeoff lasted. Then the illuminated symbols on the sign board went out with a single sound and he unfastened his seatbelt, folded up the retractable seat and pulled the curtain that separated the galley from the first-class cabin. From his severed veins the blood trickled slowly, almost without gushes. His heart hadn’t stopped, but it was calm.

He had always dreamed of becoming an airline steward, of being simultaneously useful and flying, of being with people yet at the same time somehow alone. Up high everyone is alone, with all that air underneath them. There was no time to get lost in thought and that was wonderful, the words flew from his head, only official phrases are necessary. Today the sky was empty, only far away above the horizon a few motionless clouds lingered. The engine’s rumbling increased, bodies were pressed against backrests. He smiled encouragingly at the passengers in the first row of seats and again looked out the window. The rosary of words had broken, he knew that this time he wouldn’t need to fix it. Just like the vibrating ropes of the bridge above the river, above the chasm, that have finally torn loose. A flight above the muddy water, not a fall. The whistling of the wind, the crests of the white smoky clouds, trailing off into infinity. In the glass of the window that infinite blue appeared, the one that fills up your eyes to the point of pain. The light intensified, pierced by something. By the stitches and bandages on his wrists. And the painful tube washing all the vitriol he’d swallowed out of his stomach. And the silhouette of the foundation employee:

“Why did you do that? We need you.”

“What do you use my sperm for?”

“Come on, now, that’s enough.”

“Tell me, what do you use it for?”

“You know I can’t tell you that.”

The employee laid something flat and shiny on the white nightstand next to his bed. Tinfoil, chocolate, he guessed.

“And in the end, we’re hoping that someday you’ll remember the way back to your home village. That your memory will return and you’ll lead us to the Valley. We haven’t given up, we’re still waiting.”

“I can’t... I don’t...” he tried to speak, but the air leaked out through the tube. He saw it in front of his nose, like an extension of his own face, he looked to the left and to the right, at the white bed, at his hairy monkey hands shaved around the bandages that covered his wounds.

“We believe that you know, but we also believe that you have forgotten. That’s why we don’t insist. Someday you’ll understand what you have to do. You’ll understand that it’s the correct decision, and not a betrayal. We really are in need.”

“There is no such place!” he wanted to tell them.

“You know best.”

“It no longer exists,” he wanted to answer, he wanted to sit up in bed. “There are no villages there. Everything was obliterated, that’s why I ran away, otherwise I wouldn’t have...”

“You know best. You know that such a place exists. The Valley.”

“Why? What do you need it for?”

“Because there are very few like you left.”

“What do you use my spermatozoa for?”

“Come on, that’s really enough now.”

The employee nudged the little tinfoil-wrapped box on the nightstand. He now saw that it wasn’t actually a box of chocolate. And it wasn’t a box.

Of course, he could imagine how for weeks at a time the paratroopers would land on the plateau. Regular squadrons and special forces. After that they would head down into the valley. Perhaps during the first week, or perhaps during the second, on some random day – it would happen on July 8, for example, perhaps during the hottest part of the day – they would enter his village. Of course, he wouldn’t have told them he was born there and it would be easy to arrange for him to be with the military forces on the day when they… he could imagine it. Just as it had been in every anthropoid settlement, so it would be there… Just as it would be everywhere. It would already be clear to him by then that it wasn’t just a question of castration. Nobody should harbor any illusions, this was an official UN operation. Even roundabout wording and humanitarian phrasing was unnecessary. They needed spermatozoa, this time with no mistakes, they couldn’t afford to waste another half-century in the struggle against AIDS. The automated extraction of seminal fluid would begin right there on the ground, under the supervision of the Darwin Institute. In the meantime the need for it would have intensified, he could just picture it.

For that reason he now returned in his thoughts above the river, to the bridge, with the quivering ropes on either side and the chasm above the muddy water. His tribe was crossing slowly, along with the women, children and elderly. He was making sure no one was left behind, that’s why he was last. The whistling of the wind, the crests of the underwater rocks jutting through the surface. The loosening of the ropes, when the weight finally freed itself and everything soared into the emptiness.

Even he himself, strangely enough, is amazed at the ease, at the tranquility, at the freedom with which the machine extracts the drops of seminal fluid from his vesicles and afterwards removes its needle, while he could be both there and here, both above the river and in an airplane flying kilometers above the ground. In any case, the monkey never leaves The Valley, and the airplane isn’t actually visible, it was up there, but now it’s gone. This is soothsaying based on the trail, which, like a white tail, like a faraway whip, cuts through the sky.

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