"This Being How" by Albena Stambolova
Following on the “earlier announcement”: about Albena Stambolova’s This Being How winning this year’s Bulgarian Writers Contest, here’s an excerpt from Olga Nikolova’s translation.
8. Fathers and Their Professions
Philip met Maria at a friend’s house. Although he never liked to admit it, he failed to notice her at first. She had been sitting in some part of the room, watching him. He had felt her gaze, although without being able to identify where it came from.
For a long time afterwards, he wondered why this creature stood there draped in black cloth, as if an extra in a busy film scene.
Philip was a pathologist and that caused him both annoyance and relief. He was the only one among his friends who could say in a word what he did for a living. For a twenty-seven-year-old man it made things easier. But when people curious about the nature of his work started asking questions, he was not good at explaining.
The voice in the receiver moved him so suddenly and profoundly that he nearly hung up. He couldn’t remember what they said to each other, just as later he couldn’t recall anything specific from conversations with Maria. He could remember situations in which her presence or her voice obliterated everything else.
No one could say no to this voice, which was now calling to him from the receiver. Why him and not someone else, he never understood. Here I am, Lord.
He proposed to her almost immediately, not knowing what he was doing. The one thing he did know was that he could not have done otherwise. She nodded, as if she had foreseen long ago that this was bound to happen.
Time seemed to be out of joint. The days were shamelessly short, the nights blended into one. Something was ripening in Philip; he could feel it in nervous spasms, but he ignored the signs. He was spinning with Maria in some kind of a whirlwind. He turned into a boomerang, always meekly landing at her feet, no matter what he thought, no matter what he did, and no matter who he went out with.
Before meeting Maria, he had been simply Philip, a doctor, a pathologist. He had been able to describe himself in a word.
After meeting Maria, his center of gravity was transposed out of his body and in the beginning this gave him strength. Strength that Maria absorbed.
9. The Hero’s Prize
There was no wedding. They only signed a marriage certificate. She never allowed him to see her passport. The civil servant could see it, but not her husband. He had no idea when she was born, or who her parents were or whether she had any siblings. Whenever he asked her about these things, she laughed, as if his questions were the most inappropriate thing in the world. He was surprised at how easily he could lie to his friends and his family when they asked the same questions. And he lied to himself, thinking that one day he would surely find out, as soon as Maria stopped playing this funny game. Then he forgot about it and remembered it again only when it was too late.
She did not simply give herself to him – she laid herself out like a gift, like an offering. He sank into her with the feeling that he had never experienced anything like this before. All thoughts and questions vanished. Maria became a world he inhabited. He knew he must have done things, at least he must have eaten food and drunk water. Later when the doctor asked him, he could not remember anything else, only that he had felt tireless and strong.
She stayed at home knitting sweaters. There was always something cooked to eat. Maria always had money and the food was always tasty. So tasty that after dinner, his only wish was to take her in his arms and bury his face in her long hair.
She became pregnant almost by magic. Philip was certain it had happened the very first time. If happiness meant being able to stop thinking, Philip was happy. Things just happened and he was part of the process.
The twins were born. A boy, Valentin, and a girl, Margarita. Philip could not remember ever having discussed what names to choose. It seemed like they were born with their names.
10. After the Fairy Tale’s End
Then Maria started to frighten him.
One night, he woke up and looked at his sleeping wife. He watched her for a long time. He was certain that she was not asleep. She lay perfectly still, as if absent from her body.
For the first time he wondered whether a human being had a beginning and an end. He could see her. Maria was sleeping naked, enveloped in her hair. Her breath was barely perceptible. No adjectives could describe her for him. He couldn’t say that she was kind, for example, or anything like that. This creature had simply appeared and in the face of this fact Philip was powerless. He was suddenly overtaken by despair. What were his or her feelings? Only star dust, dispersing.
Then he realized that Maria was staring at him. Perhaps everyone having just risen out of sleep had this look in their eyes. Maria’s look was evil. At last, something definite. Philip had come to know something and now he could see she didn’t like it. Her eyes stared unblinkingly, as if she had no eyelids.
He got up from the bed and left the room.
After this first onrush of fear, Philip tried to talk to his brother. What he heard was that Maria was breaking all accepted codes of behavior.
At first he could not understand what his brother meant. Gradually it dawned on him that he was being accused of disloyalty. Towards himself, towards his family, towards his friends. The sound of these trivial words, which he hadn’t heard pronounced for a while, unsettled him.
That same night, Maria refused to sleep with him, and he knew her refusal was going to last.
Philip tried to hide in his work. From then on, he often slept in the hospital, he worked night shifts and became better at his job. He was called more often for criminal cases. He discovered courtrooms.
But he also started drinking. And drinking brought back his ability to speak.