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Balkan Rhapsody
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ISBN
978-619-02-0275-2
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978-619-02-0276-9
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4.3461538461538 26
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13/20
Weight
196 gr.
Pages
240
Published
24 August 2018

Balkan Rhapsody

The Balkan peninsula during the first decades of the last century - characters' fates meet in a world filled with religious taboos, superstitions, and petrified moral norms, between Albania's refugee roads, Kemal Ataturk's modern Turkey and Bulgaria, still unstable. Along with the dramatic storyline, pierced by pain but illuminated by the freedom of loving and being loved, a modern woman carries on her inner dialogue with her ancestors, in order to explain the emotional, ethical and personal decisions of those whose blood flows in her veins...

About the Author
Maria  Kassimova-Moisset

Maria Kassimova-Moisset studied Bulgarian Philology at Sofia University "St. Kliment Ohridski". Her career as a journalist began with the newspaper "Standard", where she wrote about theater, cinema and music. She was contributor to the daily newspapers "24 Hours," "SEGA" and "Democracy", and editor in chief of several magazines, such as "One", ELLE and "Capital LIGHT". Currently, she works as a freelancer for various media.

"Close Encounters with Mixed Feelings" is her first collection of stories, acclaimed by Bulgarian readers. "Balkan Rhapsody" is her debut novel.

More Books from this Author
Excerpt

Maria Kassimova-Moisset - Balkan Rhapsody

MIRIAM
1924

It rolled down along her leg.
A sluggish, thick drop of blood. It slid out of the depths of her skinny body and rushed between her legs. It stumbled at her bony knee, where it stopped for a second to examine the path ahead of it. Setting out along the inner side of her calf, between the small, delicate blond hairs of her girlish down, it collided directly into her white sock. Phhhhp!... The cotton absorbed it instantaneously. The dark red streaked into its threads, slowing its pace, and meandered towards the bottom of her shoe and its leather worn as a bald pate. There it nestled into the invisible and settled down.
Miriam froze in place. The girls ran around in front of her, one after another, their braids flying in the air, and when she blinked, they appeared to her as a net. Now the net seemed to be filling in on its own with more and more threads of hair and was blacking out the path in front of her. The space that had been so endless and airy until just a moment before began closing up with dizzying speed. Only the white socks of the girls racing headlong in front her were running like bright little rabbits and flashed through somewhere at an indeterminate distance. Their white, white socks…
Miriam threw aside her linen bag with things for the beach, tossed her braids, which were coming loose from running, over to the side, and knelt down. She hugged her leg with both arms, being careful not to dip her finger into the bloody stream that was flowing from her body, and squeezed her eyes shut. She squeezed them so hard that for a moment it seemed to her that if she strained a little harder, her eyelids would split in the middle. The upper lid would be forever insufficient to darken her vision, and the lower one would relax along the contour of her eye and would extrude downwards. It would get heavy and her eyes would become sad. Sorrow is a weight that has been dropped, put down in the place where they cannot carry it anymore. “And then my eyes will already look old,” Miriam thought to herself, “like mo…”
“Moootheeeeeer,” someone shouted, and Miram opened her eyes.
“Mother’s calling you, Miiiiaaaaa… Come home for a little whiiiiile, or they’ll find you and you’ll be puuuniiiished…”
Mila, her little sister. Of course…
As usual, this pudgy little girl, who was constantly in her mother’s lap, ailing, had tracked her down. She had been doing that ever since Miram had learned to sneak out of the window of their little room in the house in the early afternoons and to set out on her neighborhood journeys. Mila, that tiny, sweet family spy, had the ability to appear out of the blue and to find out everything before it had even happened. She moved like a shadow behind her older sister and sensed her subcutaneously. When she woke up that morning she had seen Miriam sitting on the edge of her bed and rocking back and forth. Her left hand was pressed to her stomach as if glued there, and with her right hand, she was twisting her blanket around her index finger, to the point of tearing it.
“Mia, why are you twisting the blanket, you’ll tear it!”
“I knew you weren’t sleeping, you monkey!” Miriam had laughed. “It’s none of your business – I’m doing magic, that’s why! Twist-twist-twist and roll, beat my sister with a pole!”
Then the room overflowed with her laughter, over the beds and the twisted blanket, the window with the strawberry curtains, over the entire Constaninople kilim and the graying Madonna from the icon. It spread out all around, escaped through the open window outside, and set out somewhere, all the while laughing on its own. Mila knew this laughter. It was the first thing that she had really heard in her life, and now every time she picked up on it nearby, she felt comforted. Naughty Miriam, that girl like a live coal, as their mother called her. How did she manage every time to disperse the clouds? Where did she get this devilish joy that could blow away all the trifling troubling troubles like the fluff on a dandelion?...
“Trifling troubling troubles,” repeated Mila, and startled herself with her own voice.
Troubling troubles torment the tremulous troublesome troubulousness and tremble troublishly!” Miriam laughed, and while she repeated her most recent invention in front of a wide-eyed Mila, she threw her leg out the window, made a lively leap into the small space between the wall and the fence of the neighboring yard and impatiently straightened her skirt. Then she loudly exhaled, doubled over one last time with a spasm in her lower abdomen, and with a practiced jump, she scrambled over the fence. Mila was standing at the window of their room as if drawn. Her plump little hand only managed to rise into the air to wave at her sister’s bouncing braids.
“Mia,” Mila whispered loudly, “if you forget your things for the beach, I’ll bring them to you, wherever you are!”
“Ohhh…” Miriam’s forehead appeared above the edge of the wooden fence, and after a moment her eyes lit up like lighthouses, “I’m going crazy! It’s good that you reminded me! Hand me my bag, it’s under my bed!”
“Oh, I’m so stupid!” Mila thought to herself and began to shuffle in her slippers with their worn-out heels towards the kingdom of her sister. She leaned on her bed, bent over, and pulled a shapeless bag with Miriam’s beach belongings out from under it. For a second she had the urge to squeeze herself into the soft contents of this treasure trove, to throw herself as well over the wall, and then to hang on Mia’s shoulder and to swing there along all of her secret paths. She knew that it wouldn’t work. Miriam didn’t like waiting – she looked out for herself alone. That’s just the way she was…
“C’mon, Mila, why are you such a slowpoke now?! Throw the bag, mother’s going to be at the door in a second and I don’t know what I’ll do then!”
Mia’s fingers were holding the edge of the fence like a piece of fine embroidery, and her cheeks, red from worry, were rising just above the wooden posts. Her voice was lifting over the silent afternoon, and if their girlish squabbling lasted much longer, their mother would materialize. She was capable of this sort of thing – to not be there and for you to not expect her at all, but when you turn around, there she is, calmly standing somewhere behind you. Their mother heard everything. And she knew everything. She was even…
“Hold on, Mia! But… if something happens, I’ll find you, do you hear?” Mila was explaining, while with her hand she was accelerating the bag for its flight over the fence.
“I can hear you, do you think trees have started growing in my ears? You always find me, Mila, I know that. C’mon, and don’t tell mama, or…Mila Milyann, I’ll throw you in a frying pan!”
Miriam’s voice slipped along with hers into the untidy mysteries of the neighboring yard and faded away in seconds. Silence again set in above the summer afternoon, and only the seagulls marred it from time to time with their screeches. Mila sat on the edge of her sister’s bed, her hand caressing the spot where, just a little while ago, she had been sitting and doubling over, and she let her shoulders drop. There was no more than half an hour left until their mother found out about Miriam’s latest escape. Only thirty minutes more and she could rush out in her tracks. She would find her, wherever she might be. Mia the tomboy. Mia the fearless. Mia the magician…

***
Teotitsa was doing laundry. She did it every day, ritually, immediately after the hot Turkish coffee drunk from a tiny fincan, which she would drink hurriedly, in fits and starts, as she finished other urgent work. Her lips had begun to be surrounded by fine, but definite little lines, not so much because of her age as because of the constant worry that pulled her face with invisibile threads towards some kind of indeterminate but distant point in the space before her. Her eyebrows also followed this magic force and ended in a large, deep furrow above her aquiline nose, like little horses leaning over a well. Teotitsa rarely smiled. For the entire fifteen years that Miriam had known her as her mother, her mouth had stretched out into something like a smile two times. The first time was when her father, Todor, bought the grocery store. The second, when her brothers Pencho and Boris had shaken down the neighbor’s pear tree. His dog had chased them with such a lust for blood that in the end they turned into the church courtyard and, in order to hide, they jumped into the freshly dug grave of the just departed mother of Vasilko, the priest’s wife. In spite of her strong belief in God, Teotitsa did not get on with her and often quietly cursed her when she caught sight of her swaggering silhouette gliding along the walls of the church.
“Vasilko, Vasilikaki, you’ll be my souvlaki!” shouted Teotitsa’s children behind the back of the stuck-up priest’s wife, and their mother just made holes in the air with her gaze and didn’t utter a word to scold them. Mia knew this face of her mother’s well. In fact, she knew all of her faces. Even that one, broadly laughing, that she had seen only once – when the prist, Vasiliko’s husband, told how he had been performing a funeral for some woman from Aytos, and at one point she sat up in her coffin, among the bouquets, and asked the father if he might be Saint Peter.
When Mia flew into the yard of their house, Teotitsa raised her head from the metal basin and stared at her daughter. The wrinkle between her brows dug further down into her forehead, and it seemed like any moment it might split her profile into two. The white laundry she was wringing out relaxed some between her gnarled hands, and droplets from it wet body began to flee hysterically back to the water. The soapy rain drummed on the iron body of the basin and measured out the moments of silence. Mia froze beside the yard’s metal gate, slowly lifted the hook to unlock it, and looked her mother in the eyes. It seemed to her like hours passed before her intense eyes blinked.
“Did the rooster peck you, Mia?”
Teotitsa’s voice came out of her body somehow independently and seemed to slap Miriam’s already burning cheek. How did her mother always know, how did she understand everything without even looking at you?!
“You tell me, mother!” whispered the reckless Mia and looked at her blood-stained sock.
“Go to the room where your father and I sleep. Take the blanket off the chest and open it. Rummage around to the right, but towards the bottom, deep down, don’t be afraid! You’ll feel some Turkish cotton cloth, it’s an off-white color. Take it out – there are ten pieces, washed and ironed. Bring me one and I’ll show you how to fold it… No, don’t bring it to me! That’s your business, you’ll do it yourself! Fold it like a kerchief for your head. Gather the pointed end in first so that the pain in your abdomen isn’t too sharp when your blood comes. Fold it slowly, so that it’s not excrutiating when you give birth one day. Bring the two ends towards the center, but don’t overlap them, so that your children will not hate one another. Press down on top with your palms, but don’t press too much – so that you’ll live as many years as have been allotted to you, you won’t bleed anymore when you become a grandmother! Then wash yourself properly and dry off. You’ll open your legs, squat down, and put the piece of cloth there. Make the sign of the cross in front of the Holy Virgin and splash some cold water on your face. Don’t tell anyone what’s happened to you! These things aren’t for telling. Run there now, what are you loo…”
“I’m looking at you, mother, because I stained my white socks… but by accident.”
Mila, that little bouncing ball, had silently sneaked up behind her sister and was peeping out from behind her skirt while Teotitsa was arranging things as if in a dream. She didn’t know exactly what was happening, but she caught the tone in her mother’s voice and correctly understood that things were serious. She had straightened up behind Mia’s back, and from there she could see clearly the fresh bloody rivulet that was flowing towards her twisted socks.
“You don’t need to know too much!” cried out Teotitsa, and the laundry slid out of the clamp of her hands, plopped into the water, and splashed it around.
“God sends know-it-alls like you to Hell to talk the heads off the sinners! Now march and bring me the clothespins and stop shuffling along after your big sister – she’s already a woman, there’s nothing for her to do with you!”
Miriam detached her feet from the floor and lightly moved towards her mother and father’s room. Todor, her father, spent the whole day in the grocery store, and his presence at home was marked only by each successive apron, smeared with olive oil, brine, and soap shavings, that would hang by the door, waiting for Teotitsa’s hands to get hold of it. The laundry in the home of Todor and his wife, the Greek Teotitsa, registered the whole family history and divided the day into parts. In the morning, undergarments were washed first. And endless series of underwear, undershirts, and socks that drowned in the grated homemade soap and silently screamed in horror under Teotitsa’s strong hands.
Next came the apron’s turn. It was carried from the hook on the door in the kitchen like the mantle of a tsar. The boys of the family were responsible for this – their mother loved rituals and insisted that they be upheld exactly as she had ordered, and because of that, even the dirty apron could be touched only by the brothers, who would one day have to inherit the trade and take over the grocery in their turn. Teotitsa would take it from their hands, slowly immerse it, and press it down with her fists until she completely submersed it. Then she would grasp the metal sides of the basin, lean over the turbid water, and for a long time she would gaze at the reflection of the world in it. She would say that she wasn’t fortune-telling, but that wasn’t true. By its wrinkles and the soot that was flowing off of it, by the little bubbles of the village soap and the floating images of things around them, she would understood what was going to happen soon or would find out the truth in some secrets.
This morning, however, the apron had not hinted anything to her. There wasn’t even a drop of blood on it from the fresh lamb they were selling for Easter. Not a flake of soot, not an oily spot – there was nothing at all on the damned apron that wouldn’t have been seen by her – it had so spread out in the basin as if it had resolved to never again dry and return to work on the small wiry body of the grocer Todor. It always happened that way with that Miriam – only her fate gave no signs, didn’t make a mark on anything, and didn’t seek to be shared. That’s the way Miriam had been since she was born – she kept her cards close to her chest. And here she was again – she was standing in front of her mother, looking her in the eyes without blinking, not even hiding her leg with a new drop of blood slowing flowing down it, and again, “you tell me, mother,” she was sying, “you tell me…”
“I’m telling you to stop sneaking around behind me, Milishta!” Mia stretched her arm out towards her sister and shoved her sharply on her shoulder. “Wherever I turn, you’re always there, you little monkey! You were sent for clothespins, weren’t you, what are you still doing here?!”
“But didn’t you say that if there was something…
“I told you! But you never listen to anyone, you just shuffle along behind me around everywhere, you’re turning into a regular novice in a nunnery! Come on, fine, don’t pout now, all I need is for you to start bawling here, do you hear me?”
“But did you hear what mother told you, to rummage down deep in the chest, to the right, really deep…”
“Well of course it’s deep down! Do you have any idea what kind of amazing things there are around the Turkish cotton, huh? Dad’s pants from his military uniform, the sheets for the dead, the clothes of mother and dad’s children who died…”
“Don’t tell me this about the clothes of the dead children, do you hear me, Mia?!” Mila cried out as she clapped her plump little palms over her ears, closed her eyes, and began to shriek loudly.
“La-la-la-la-la, I can’t hear, my finger’s in my ear, la-la-la-la-la…”
Mia burst out laughing. This tiny, plump little girl who discovered her everywhere she went passed from one mood to another so sharply that sometimes tears would stream from her eyes without them understanding whether they had been summoned by laughter or sorrow. Mila was fainthearted, and this struck Miriam as funny. In that inviolable chest that her mother had sent her to were kept the most important family relics, and none of the children in the family had the right to open it without permission. This was given directly by Teotitsa, and not even Todor, her husband, dared to contradict her. He even preferred, when something had to be taken from or put into the sacred container, to mention it to his wife, seemingly in passing, so that she could decide which of the two of them should open it. She had her own order within it, and once every few months she would rearrange everything. It would take her at least half a day, so when she was going to reorder the chest, she would also change the order of the laundry. First that morning, she would wash her husband’s apron. She would hang it half wet on two nails under the awning in the yard, and large drops of water would drip from it like tears and sink into the trampled earth. The underwear and whites would be left for the afternoon, when the children were taking a nap. Teotitsa didn’t like to sleep. “You don’t make memories by sleeping,” she would say, and she was constantly finding something to do. On these special days she would somehow even boil her coffee more slowly. She would move the cezve in smooth circles over the flame, letting the foam rise three times, pour in a drop of cold water, and carefully pour the finished coffee into the fincan. She would silently pull her chair in front of the dripping apron, relax onto in, and stare at the drops of water falling one after the other. On these days she sipped her coffee more noisily than usual. She would shake the fincan in such a way that the foam would slide along its rim, buffeting it gently, and down the sweetened bitter liquid in two gulps. “I have a tin-plated mouth,” she would always say through her dreg-coated teeth. After this she would cough a little, jump from her chair like a spring, and seclude herself in her ritual around the chest. It was if the door shut behind her on its own accord, its creaking was a commandment to keep quiet, and in the house a heavy silence set in.
Miriam didn’t like this silence.
As soon as she caught it in the air, she would take off her shoes, come running across the wooden plank floor on tiptoe to keep it from creaking, and press her cheek against the body of the door. At first nothing could be heard. Then one by one, the sharp sounds of the rusted hinges. A muffled tup-du-dup could be heard as the heavy wool blankets fell on the bed. A heavy inhalation. A painful “ohhh” emitting from Teotitsa’s throat. Sniffling and “oh, lord…” And in a trance she would begin to lament: Nikola… Stefan… Zhivka… Blago and Mitko… Zlatina… Nevena… Atina… Kostadin… Mia knew that her mother was putting in order, one by one, the belongings left behind by her dead children. All different sizes, various clothing of people who did not grow up, who had passed briefly through life. Nikola’s blanket. Zhivka’s knitted vest. The two hats of Blago and Mitko, the twins. Nevena’s knitted doll. A little lock of Atina’s hair, tucked inside her father Todor’s striped handkerchief. Little signs of the fleeting existence of Mia’s brothers and sisters. Teotitsa’s sorrows, arranged in the chest and in her heart.

 

[Istanbul description]
In this moment, in which he is carrying his son in his arms. In which his girl is walking to the left of his heart and nothing, nothing else, just walking, simply walking. In which their steps are not accumulating sorrow, but making a straight line of footprints, on and on, and with every step they shed another sorrow on the paving stones. In which behind them the seagulls are building their nests, and ahead of them, the herring gulls are leaving them. In which the city with the houses and the people inside them and the city with the people and the houses within them is becoming a picture and growing smaller, getting thinner, fading, melting, becoming diluted, drying up, and coming together into a straight line, a dash between two words and one meaning, a bridge over the water between two lands.
In this moment Ahmed was happy.
Miriam’s cashmere shawl, still showing its white side, covered her shoulders, which were lightly drawn inward from the cold wind, and its edges fluttered. She walked out onto the deck from time to time, squinted her eyes to glimpse how the remains of her past were being preserved into memories like a dried bouquet, and exhaled very quietly, almost imperceptibly. Her breath mingled with the sea foam that had risen around her and remained there to swim among the fish. She was not sad. Just a little… Just a little, when she saw her in the distance in her white dress with red strawberries on it, the same ones from the curtains in their shared room. In her hat with the large brim, the one she had left when she left home that day. That if she ever needed distinctive features in order to be recognized from a distance, when two eyes had to see her from the deck of a ship, she should put it on. Mila. She was standing outside, on the quay, one hand holding her hat so that it wouldn’t fly off of her head from the wind, and the other – in her little green glove – hanging down beside her body. Maybe she saw her, and maybe not. She just raised that hand with the little green glove, raised it, she raised it with certainty, and waved. The air moved, the birds made way, and the puff of air rushed from her to reach the ship, there, on the deck, to the woman in the cashmere shawl with its white side out and its edges fluttering.

Istanbul – that lace of colors and scents! They dissolved at their feet, scattered into countless colorful pieces, overflowed before their eyes and enchanted them. They strode along the cobblestone streets, beneath windows dripping with geraniums, shops with all kinds of baklava, flowing with sweetness, bakeries with roasted nuts, apples, and pumpkins softened with flavor, walls with pretty gates whose metal rings rapped with each opening and closing. They barely missed the boys scampering about, whose newly sprouted mustaches bristled from the strain of not overturning the large copper trays of coffee and water onto some comfortably seated gentleman with a European overcoat and amber prayer beads in his hand. They couldn’t take their eyes off of the colorful dresses and hats of the wealthy women, after whom little servants, not yet fully grown, meekly hurried, with colorful scarves on their heads and their eyes fixed on the ground. The city pulsed with its markets, where voices outshouted each other to praise their wares, to tell tearful stories of single mothers, abandoned little children, and sons perished while working abroad, to foretell the future, to treat the present with little magic spells, and to earn redemption from past sins through prayers. Around every corner a new world jumped out at them, unparalleled and infinite, in which several realities existed simultaneously and harmoniously. A barefooted little boy flew out of someone’s door, biting into a long slice of bread with molasses, and a second later, a whole pack of shrieking kids came rolling out on his heels like a ball. A few steps further two men placidly spurred on their slow horses, and from the height of their backs, surveyed the interminable bustle of the street. There was some kind of strange organization behind this entire mass of human bodies with their mustaches, canes, neckties, pocket watches, prayer beads, pince-nez, caps and soft hats, henna and fingers with long nails, turbans, headscarves, and umbrellas against the sun. Something magical led this indescribable chaos and transformed it into a new, promising, and fresh world in which you could be whatever you wanted. And in which you could remain anonymous. For Ahmed and Miriam, this was everything they needed. Probably for little Haalim as well, who had slept through almost the entire journey on the ship, snuggly wrapped up to his little button nose in his mothers embrace. When he was awoken by the noises and voices of Istanbul, while the donkey cart was driving them to their new home and bouncing over the narrow cobblestone streets, he didn’t cry. He took in a deep breath with all of its scents of caramel, raisins and dried apricots, onion and lamb, turmeric and saffron, rose and oleander, and hugged his father around his neck with both arms. “Hoş geldiniz, Haalim!” his father told him. “Welcome home, son!” said his mother.

Maria Kassimova-Moisset - Balkan Rhapsody

MIRIAM
1924

It rolled down along her leg.
A sluggish, thick drop of blood. It slid out of the depths of her skinny body and rushed between her legs. It stumbled at her bony knee, where it stopped for a second to examine the path ahead of it. Setting out along the inner side of her calf, between the small, delicate blond hairs of her girlish down, it collided directly into her white sock. Phhhhp!... The cotton absorbed it instantaneously. The dark red streaked into its threads, slowing its pace, and meandered towards the bottom of her shoe and its leather worn as a bald pate. There it nestled into the invisible and settled down.
Miriam froze in place. The girls ran around in front of her, one after another, their braids flying in the air, and when she blinked, they appeared to her as a net. Now the net seemed to be filling in on its own with more and more threads of hair and was blacking out the path in front of her. The space that had been so endless and airy until just a moment before began closing up with dizzying speed. Only the white socks of the girls racing headlong in front her were running like bright little rabbits and flashed through somewhere at an indeterminate distance. Their white, white socks…
Miriam threw aside her linen bag with things for the beach, tossed her braids, which were coming loose from running, over to the side, and knelt down. She hugged her leg with both arms, being careful not to dip her finger into the bloody stream that was flowing from her body, and squeezed her eyes shut. She squeezed them so hard that for a moment it seemed to her that if she strained a little harder, her eyelids would split in the middle. The upper lid would be forever insufficient to darken her vision, and the lower one would relax along the contour of her eye and would extrude downwards. It would get heavy and her eyes would become sad. Sorrow is a weight that has been dropped, put down in the place where they cannot carry it anymore. “And then my eyes will already look old,” Miriam thought to herself, “like mo…”
“Moootheeeeeer,” someone shouted, and Miram opened her eyes.
“Mother’s calling you, Miiiiaaaaa… Come home for a little whiiiiile, or they’ll find you and you’ll be puuuniiiished…”
Mila, her little sister. Of course…
As usual, this pudgy little girl, who was constantly in her mother’s lap, ailing, had tracked her down. She had been doing that ever since Miram had learned to sneak out of the window of their little room in the house in the early afternoons and to set out on her neighborhood journeys. Mila, that tiny, sweet family spy, had the ability to appear out of the blue and to find out everything before it had even happened. She moved like a shadow behind her older sister and sensed her subcutaneously. When she woke up that morning she had seen Miriam sitting on the edge of her bed and rocking back and forth. Her left hand was pressed to her stomach as if glued there, and with her right hand, she was twisting her blanket around her index finger, to the point of tearing it.
“Mia, why are you twisting the blanket, you’ll tear it!”
“I knew you weren’t sleeping, you monkey!” Miriam had laughed. “It’s none of your business – I’m doing magic, that’s why! Twist-twist-twist and roll, beat my sister with a pole!”
Then the room overflowed with her laughter, over the beds and the twisted blanket, the window with the strawberry curtains, over the entire Constaninople kilim and the graying Madonna from the icon. It spread out all around, escaped through the open window outside, and set out somewhere, all the while laughing on its own. Mila knew this laughter. It was the first thing that she had really heard in her life, and now every time she picked up on it nearby, she felt comforted. Naughty Miriam, that girl like a live coal, as their mother called her. How did she manage every time to disperse the clouds? Where did she get this devilish joy that could blow away all the trifling troubling troubles like the fluff on a dandelion?...
“Trifling troubling troubles,” repeated Mila, and startled herself with her own voice.
Troubling troubles torment the tremulous troublesome troubulousness and tremble troublishly!” Miriam laughed, and while she repeated her most recent invention in front of a wide-eyed Mila, she threw her leg out the window, made a lively leap into the small space between the wall and the fence of the neighboring yard and impatiently straightened her skirt. Then she loudly exhaled, doubled over one last time with a spasm in her lower abdomen, and with a practiced jump, she scrambled over the fence. Mila was standing at the window of their room as if drawn. Her plump little hand only managed to rise into the air to wave at her sister’s bouncing braids.
“Mia,” Mila whispered loudly, “if you forget your things for the beach, I’ll bring them to you, wherever you are!”
“Ohhh…” Miriam’s forehead appeared above the edge of the wooden fence, and after a moment her eyes lit up like lighthouses, “I’m going crazy! It’s good that you reminded me! Hand me my bag, it’s under my bed!”
“Oh, I’m so stupid!” Mila thought to herself and began to shuffle in her slippers with their worn-out heels towards the kingdom of her sister. She leaned on her bed, bent over, and pulled a shapeless bag with Miriam’s beach belongings out from under it. For a second she had the urge to squeeze herself into the soft contents of this treasure trove, to throw herself as well over the wall, and then to hang on Mia’s shoulder and to swing there along all of her secret paths. She knew that it wouldn’t work. Miriam didn’t like waiting – she looked out for herself alone. That’s just the way she was…
“C’mon, Mila, why are you such a slowpoke now?! Throw the bag, mother’s going to be at the door in a second and I don’t know what I’ll do then!”
Mia’s fingers were holding the edge of the fence like a piece of fine embroidery, and her cheeks, red from worry, were rising just above the wooden posts. Her voice was lifting over the silent afternoon, and if their girlish squabbling lasted much longer, their mother would materialize. She was capable of this sort of thing – to not be there and for you to not expect her at all, but when you turn around, there she is, calmly standing somewhere behind you. Their mother heard everything. And she knew everything. She was even…
“Hold on, Mia! But… if something happens, I’ll find you, do you hear?” Mila was explaining, while with her hand she was accelerating the bag for its flight over the fence.
“I can hear you, do you think trees have started growing in my ears? You always find me, Mila, I know that. C’mon, and don’t tell mama, or…Mila Milyann, I’ll throw you in a frying pan!”
Miriam’s voice slipped along with hers into the untidy mysteries of the neighboring yard and faded away in seconds. Silence again set in above the summer afternoon, and only the seagulls marred it from time to time with their screeches. Mila sat on the edge of her sister’s bed, her hand caressing the spot where, just a little while ago, she had been sitting and doubling over, and she let her shoulders drop. There was no more than half an hour left until their mother found out about Miriam’s latest escape. Only thirty minutes more and she could rush out in her tracks. She would find her, wherever she might be. Mia the tomboy. Mia the fearless. Mia the magician…

***
Teotitsa was doing laundry. She did it every day, ritually, immediately after the hot Turkish coffee drunk from a tiny fincan, which she would drink hurriedly, in fits and starts, as she finished other urgent work. Her lips had begun to be surrounded by fine, but definite little lines, not so much because of her age as because of the constant worry that pulled her face with invisibile threads towards some kind of indeterminate but distant point in the space before her. Her eyebrows also followed this magic force and ended in a large, deep furrow above her aquiline nose, like little horses leaning over a well. Teotitsa rarely smiled. For the entire fifteen years that Miriam had known her as her mother, her mouth had stretched out into something like a smile two times. The first time was when her father, Todor, bought the grocery store. The second, when her brothers Pencho and Boris had shaken down the neighbor’s pear tree. His dog had chased them with such a lust for blood that in the end they turned into the church courtyard and, in order to hide, they jumped into the freshly dug grave of the just departed mother of Vasilko, the priest’s wife. In spite of her strong belief in God, Teotitsa did not get on with her and often quietly cursed her when she caught sight of her swaggering silhouette gliding along the walls of the church.
“Vasilko, Vasilikaki, you’ll be my souvlaki!” shouted Teotitsa’s children behind the back of the stuck-up priest’s wife, and their mother just made holes in the air with her gaze and didn’t utter a word to scold them. Mia knew this face of her mother’s well. In fact, she knew all of her faces. Even that one, broadly laughing, that she had seen only once – when the prist, Vasiliko’s husband, told how he had been performing a funeral for some woman from Aytos, and at one point she sat up in her coffin, among the bouquets, and asked the father if he might be Saint Peter.
When Mia flew into the yard of their house, Teotitsa raised her head from the metal basin and stared at her daughter. The wrinkle between her brows dug further down into her forehead, and it seemed like any moment it might split her profile into two. The white laundry she was wringing out relaxed some between her gnarled hands, and droplets from it wet body began to flee hysterically back to the water. The soapy rain drummed on the iron body of the basin and measured out the moments of silence. Mia froze beside the yard’s metal gate, slowly lifted the hook to unlock it, and looked her mother in the eyes. It seemed to her like hours passed before her intense eyes blinked.
“Did the rooster peck you, Mia?”
Teotitsa’s voice came out of her body somehow independently and seemed to slap Miriam’s already burning cheek. How did her mother always know, how did she understand everything without even looking at you?!
“You tell me, mother!” whispered the reckless Mia and looked at her blood-stained sock.
“Go to the room where your father and I sleep. Take the blanket off the chest and open it. Rummage around to the right, but towards the bottom, deep down, don’t be afraid! You’ll feel some Turkish cotton cloth, it’s an off-white color. Take it out – there are ten pieces, washed and ironed. Bring me one and I’ll show you how to fold it… No, don’t bring it to me! That’s your business, you’ll do it yourself! Fold it like a kerchief for your head. Gather the pointed end in first so that the pain in your abdomen isn’t too sharp when your blood comes. Fold it slowly, so that it’s not excrutiating when you give birth one day. Bring the two ends towards the center, but don’t overlap them, so that your children will not hate one another. Press down on top with your palms, but don’t press too much – so that you’ll live as many years as have been allotted to you, you won’t bleed anymore when you become a grandmother! Then wash yourself properly and dry off. You’ll open your legs, squat down, and put the piece of cloth there. Make the sign of the cross in front of the Holy Virgin and splash some cold water on your face. Don’t tell anyone what’s happened to you! These things aren’t for telling. Run there now, what are you loo…”
“I’m looking at you, mother, because I stained my white socks… but by accident.”
Mila, that little bouncing ball, had silently sneaked up behind her sister and was peeping out from behind her skirt while Teotitsa was arranging things as if in a dream. She didn’t know exactly what was happening, but she caught the tone in her mother’s voice and correctly understood that things were serious. She had straightened up behind Mia’s back, and from there she could see clearly the fresh bloody rivulet that was flowing towards her twisted socks.
“You don’t need to know too much!” cried out Teotitsa, and the laundry slid out of the clamp of her hands, plopped into the water, and splashed it around.
“God sends know-it-alls like you to Hell to talk the heads off the sinners! Now march and bring me the clothespins and stop shuffling along after your big sister – she’s already a woman, there’s nothing for her to do with you!”
Miriam detached her feet from the floor and lightly moved towards her mother and father’s room. Todor, her father, spent the whole day in the grocery store, and his presence at home was marked only by each successive apron, smeared with olive oil, brine, and soap shavings, that would hang by the door, waiting for Teotitsa’s hands to get hold of it. The laundry in the home of Todor and his wife, the Greek Teotitsa, registered the whole family history and divided the day into parts. In the morning, undergarments were washed first. And endless series of underwear, undershirts, and socks that drowned in the grated homemade soap and silently screamed in horror under Teotitsa’s strong hands.
Next came the apron’s turn. It was carried from the hook on the door in the kitchen like the mantle of a tsar. The boys of the family were responsible for this – their mother loved rituals and insisted that they be upheld exactly as she had ordered, and because of that, even the dirty apron could be touched only by the brothers, who would one day have to inherit the trade and take over the grocery in their turn. Teotitsa would take it from their hands, slowly immerse it, and press it down with her fists until she completely submersed it. Then she would grasp the metal sides of the basin, lean over the turbid water, and for a long time she would gaze at the reflection of the world in it. She would say that she wasn’t fortune-telling, but that wasn’t true. By its wrinkles and the soot that was flowing off of it, by the little bubbles of the village soap and the floating images of things around them, she would understood what was going to happen soon or would find out the truth in some secrets.
This morning, however, the apron had not hinted anything to her. There wasn’t even a drop of blood on it from the fresh lamb they were selling for Easter. Not a flake of soot, not an oily spot – there was nothing at all on the damned apron that wouldn’t have been seen by her – it had so spread out in the basin as if it had resolved to never again dry and return to work on the small wiry body of the grocer Todor. It always happened that way with that Miriam – only her fate gave no signs, didn’t make a mark on anything, and didn’t seek to be shared. That’s the way Miriam had been since she was born – she kept her cards close to her chest. And here she was again – she was standing in front of her mother, looking her in the eyes without blinking, not even hiding her leg with a new drop of blood slowing flowing down it, and again, “you tell me, mother,” she was sying, “you tell me…”
“I’m telling you to stop sneaking around behind me, Milishta!” Mia stretched her arm out towards her sister and shoved her sharply on her shoulder. “Wherever I turn, you’re always there, you little monkey! You were sent for clothespins, weren’t you, what are you still doing here?!”
“But didn’t you say that if there was something…
“I told you! But you never listen to anyone, you just shuffle along behind me around everywhere, you’re turning into a regular novice in a nunnery! Come on, fine, don’t pout now, all I need is for you to start bawling here, do you hear me?”
“But did you hear what mother told you, to rummage down deep in the chest, to the right, really deep…”
“Well of course it’s deep down! Do you have any idea what kind of amazing things there are around the Turkish cotton, huh? Dad’s pants from his military uniform, the sheets for the dead, the clothes of mother and dad’s children who died…”
“Don’t tell me this about the clothes of the dead children, do you hear me, Mia?!” Mila cried out as she clapped her plump little palms over her ears, closed her eyes, and began to shriek loudly.
“La-la-la-la-la, I can’t hear, my finger’s in my ear, la-la-la-la-la…”
Mia burst out laughing. This tiny, plump little girl who discovered her everywhere she went passed from one mood to another so sharply that sometimes tears would stream from her eyes without them understanding whether they had been summoned by laughter or sorrow. Mila was fainthearted, and this struck Miriam as funny. In that inviolable chest that her mother had sent her to were kept the most important family relics, and none of the children in the family had the right to open it without permission. This was given directly by Teotitsa, and not even Todor, her husband, dared to contradict her. He even preferred, when something had to be taken from or put into the sacred container, to mention it to his wife, seemingly in passing, so that she could decide which of the two of them should open it. She had her own order within it, and once every few months she would rearrange everything. It would take her at least half a day, so when she was going to reorder the chest, she would also change the order of the laundry. First that morning, she would wash her husband’s apron. She would hang it half wet on two nails under the awning in the yard, and large drops of water would drip from it like tears and sink into the trampled earth. The underwear and whites would be left for the afternoon, when the children were taking a nap. Teotitsa didn’t like to sleep. “You don’t make memories by sleeping,” she would say, and she was constantly finding something to do. On these special days she would somehow even boil her coffee more slowly. She would move the cezve in smooth circles over the flame, letting the foam rise three times, pour in a drop of cold water, and carefully pour the finished coffee into the fincan. She would silently pull her chair in front of the dripping apron, relax onto in, and stare at the drops of water falling one after the other. On these days she sipped her coffee more noisily than usual. She would shake the fincan in such a way that the foam would slide along its rim, buffeting it gently, and down the sweetened bitter liquid in two gulps. “I have a tin-plated mouth,” she would always say through her dreg-coated teeth. After this she would cough a little, jump from her chair like a spring, and seclude herself in her ritual around the chest. It was if the door shut behind her on its own accord, its creaking was a commandment to keep quiet, and in the house a heavy silence set in.
Miriam didn’t like this silence.
As soon as she caught it in the air, she would take off her shoes, come running across the wooden plank floor on tiptoe to keep it from creaking, and press her cheek against the body of the door. At first nothing could be heard. Then one by one, the sharp sounds of the rusted hinges. A muffled tup-du-dup could be heard as the heavy wool blankets fell on the bed. A heavy inhalation. A painful “ohhh” emitting from Teotitsa’s throat. Sniffling and “oh, lord…” And in a trance she would begin to lament: Nikola… Stefan… Zhivka… Blago and Mitko… Zlatina… Nevena… Atina… Kostadin… Mia knew that her mother was putting in order, one by one, the belongings left behind by her dead children. All different sizes, various clothing of people who did not grow up, who had passed briefly through life. Nikola’s blanket. Zhivka’s knitted vest. The two hats of Blago and Mitko, the twins. Nevena’s knitted doll. A little lock of Atina’s hair, tucked inside her father Todor’s striped handkerchief. Little signs of the fleeting existence of Mia’s brothers and sisters. Teotitsa’s sorrows, arranged in the chest and in her heart.

 

[Istanbul description]
In this moment, in which he is carrying his son in his arms. In which his girl is walking to the left of his heart and nothing, nothing else, just walking, simply walking. In which their steps are not accumulating sorrow, but making a straight line of footprints, on and on, and with every step they shed another sorrow on the paving stones. In which behind them the seagulls are building their nests, and ahead of them, the herring gulls are leaving them. In which the city with the houses and the people inside them and the city with the people and the houses within them is becoming a picture and growing smaller, getting thinner, fading, melting, becoming diluted, drying up, and coming together into a straight line, a dash between two words and one meaning, a bridge over the water between two lands.
In this moment Ahmed was happy.
Miriam’s cashmere shawl, still showing its white side, covered her shoulders, which were lightly drawn inward from the cold wind, and its edges fluttered. She walked out onto the deck from time to time, squinted her eyes to glimpse how the remains of her past were being preserved into memories like a dried bouquet, and exhaled very quietly, almost imperceptibly. Her breath mingled with the sea foam that had risen around her and remained there to swim among the fish. She was not sad. Just a little… Just a little, when she saw her in the distance in her white dress with red strawberries on it, the same ones from the curtains in their shared room. In her hat with the large brim, the one she had left when she left home that day. That if she ever needed distinctive features in order to be recognized from a distance, when two eyes had to see her from the deck of a ship, she should put it on. Mila. She was standing outside, on the quay, one hand holding her hat so that it wouldn’t fly off of her head from the wind, and the other – in her little green glove – hanging down beside her body. Maybe she saw her, and maybe not. She just raised that hand with the little green glove, raised it, she raised it with certainty, and waved. The air moved, the birds made way, and the puff of air rushed from her to reach the ship, there, on the deck, to the woman in the cashmere shawl with its white side out and its edges fluttering.

Istanbul – that lace of colors and scents! They dissolved at their feet, scattered into countless colorful pieces, overflowed before their eyes and enchanted them. They strode along the cobblestone streets, beneath windows dripping with geraniums, shops with all kinds of baklava, flowing with sweetness, bakeries with roasted nuts, apples, and pumpkins softened with flavor, walls with pretty gates whose metal rings rapped with each opening and closing. They barely missed the boys scampering about, whose newly sprouted mustaches bristled from the strain of not overturning the large copper trays of coffee and water onto some comfortably seated gentleman with a European overcoat and amber prayer beads in his hand. They couldn’t take their eyes off of the colorful dresses and hats of the wealthy women, after whom little servants, not yet fully grown, meekly hurried, with colorful scarves on their heads and their eyes fixed on the ground. The city pulsed with its markets, where voices outshouted each other to praise their wares, to tell tearful stories of single mothers, abandoned little children, and sons perished while working abroad, to foretell the future, to treat the present with little magic spells, and to earn redemption from past sins through prayers. Around every corner a new world jumped out at them, unparalleled and infinite, in which several realities existed simultaneously and harmoniously. A barefooted little boy flew out of someone’s door, biting into a long slice of bread with molasses, and a second later, a whole pack of shrieking kids came rolling out on his heels like a ball. A few steps further two men placidly spurred on their slow horses, and from the height of their backs, surveyed the interminable bustle of the street. There was some kind of strange organization behind this entire mass of human bodies with their mustaches, canes, neckties, pocket watches, prayer beads, pince-nez, caps and soft hats, henna and fingers with long nails, turbans, headscarves, and umbrellas against the sun. Something magical led this indescribable chaos and transformed it into a new, promising, and fresh world in which you could be whatever you wanted. And in which you could remain anonymous. For Ahmed and Miriam, this was everything they needed. Probably for little Haalim as well, who had slept through almost the entire journey on the ship, snuggly wrapped up to his little button nose in his mothers embrace. When he was awoken by the noises and voices of Istanbul, while the donkey cart was driving them to their new home and bouncing over the narrow cobblestone streets, he didn’t cry. He took in a deep breath with all of its scents of caramel, raisins and dried apricots, onion and lamb, turmeric and saffron, rose and oleander, and hugged his father around his neck with both arms. “Hoş geldiniz, Haalim!” his father told him. “Welcome home, son!” said his mother.

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