Colors by Zdravka Evtimova (Zdravka Evtimova
lives in Bulgaria. In her native country, she has published
three collections of short stories and 2 novels. Her short
stories have also been published in several other countries.
She works as a literary translator from English into Bulgarian.)
“You know, Rossa, you are prettier than the sun, I tell
you the truth! I can’t see what the sun is like at night,
but you are always with me, day and night, and you always
look pretty, you can take my word for it.” We, the three
twigs, sat very quiet at the table, watching mother. Long
time ago, we noticed that her shoulders sagged and we’d
seen white hairs speckling the gorgeous hazel hair at her
temples. We knew that the blue warm waves in her eyes had
become silent. Her hands were so packed with dust and hard
work that they resembled two pieces of limestone. But each
time after dad said that thing about the sun, we imagined
her old gingham dress was a golden cape of a fairy princess.
We saw mother was strong and stood tall before the sun,
and was much prettier than it. We grew up listening to these
words our father repeated day in day out, and the three
of us were convinced his voice did not let mother grow old.
Father was big and sturdy, and would never allow cold winters
and hot summers to weigh her down. His strong hands took
the burden of years off her back. Brown autumns and despair
lay on his tough palms, trickled down his fingers and vanished
without a trace. We, the three twigs, failed to notice that
dad had grown old. To us, he always looked enormous, disheveled,
with a gorgeous mane of shaggy hair, in which he often broke
his combs, and the barbers charged him double price when
they cut it. He walked energetically, his chest bare, his
denim jacket unbuttoned, and his long beard bushy like an
old haystack. Mother ironed his shirt every evening and
put it on the couch by the table, but he wouldn’t pay attention
to it. It seemed as if he was born in his denim jacket,
and that it had somehow blended with his skin.
Mother constantly grumbled it would be a disaster if the
family stayed on at that nasty slate quarry where her children’s
bones couldn’t but rot. She was very convincing as she counted
on her fingers the number of dad’s colleagues who picked
up bag and baggage, and left. Now they all had apartments
in Pernik. “What are we waiting for?” she asked gloomily.
“Why are we all still here, Vassil?” “Big money,” he answered
and spread his arms, the sleeves of his blue jacket fluttering
as if he was shoveling the money onto a truck. “Wait, Rossa,
wait a little more! I’ll get rich one day… Then I’ll buy
you a fur coat. A miraculous fur coat, you can tike my word
for it. You’ll walk in beauty, you’ll sparkle and the people
will hold their breath. What a wife Vassil has, they’ll
say. The belle of the ball! Whew!” Mother sat quietly in
her corner. She had been waiting for that coat for ten years
now. My brothers and I waited as well, and nothing in the
world would make us leave the slate quarry. We had made
our minds to dig into the slate and limestone, to gnaw at
the crags, to smash and grind them, but finally we had to
find the sparkling furs for Mother’s coat.
“Vassil, this rumble of excavations will drive the kids
crazy. Where will they study? The school in the village
was closed down. Do you want your children to stay ignorant?”
mother often remarked in the evening.
“Ignorant my foot!” dad retorted, stung. “Color is an excellent
student, the best in her class. He called me Color because
only I had black hair and dark eyes like him. You could
easily spot my brothers, their shaggy thatches of blond
hair plastered on their wry necks. The guys in all slate
quarries in Vitosha Mountain knew me as Color, the daughter
of the miner who constantly planned the day down to the
last detail, calculated costs, and concocted elaborate schemes
to grab the big money.
Everybody called Gancho, my father’s partner, the Dilly-dally
man. My brothers and I could not find out what lay at the
root of his nickname; maybe the guys gave it to him because
he lingered over meals and things he did— walked slowly,
limping, and prattled on about the big money just like dad.
The poor man uttered a couple of words then waved his hands
helplessly trying to catch the end of his sentence in the
air. He finally reached the full stop, his lips twisted
painfully, and his eyes bulged, the sweat pouring off him.
Maybe that explained why he had not married yet. Every Thursday
he gave mother a fiver and a shy bundle of his dirty clothes,
which she washed silently in the shadow of the house. We,
the twigs, hated him for that. Mother had spent her whole
life knee deep in dirty undershirts, pants, sweaters and
other rags. When she was not at work, she bent over the
wooden tub, up to her elbows in suds. It seemed she loved
that cracked tub, it had become her fourth child and she
talked to it longer than she did to us. She looked pretty
even as she bent over that gnarled tub. Gancho had noticed
that at some point too. He sat in the narrow shadow of the
poplar trees watching her. We didn’t want him there. We
hated him looking at her. He often brought mother cakes
of soap or washing powder in a plastic bag he had bought
from the small store in the village. My brothers crept noiselessly
to him and stole everything Gancho’s hands had touched -
the cakes of soap and the washing powder; then the three
of us most solemnly dumped the stolen plastic bags in a
shallow gorge nearby. Within several months, the floor of
that gorge turned white with soap suds, but Dilly-dally
man went on hauling different gimcracks to our house. He
gave mother the bags full of cheap things, his shortsighted
eyes intent on her face. He gaped and tried hard to link
several words together for her as she silently took the
awkward package, and put it on the table. He stared, transfixed,
then made for the store in the village to bring her something
else, maybe bleaching solution this time.
Our house could give you an idea how much money Dad had
grabbed for all the years of hard work in the slate quarry.
First, just above the foundations, there were two rows of
big square stones he and Gancho had lugged down from the
quarry; reddish big bricks glittered like rubies above them.
Gancho had procured them from a suspicious construction
company and had paid two demijohns of bitter red wine for
them. Then there were much smaller yellow bricks, like a
string of gold coins, the old plaster still clinging to
them - it was again Gancho who bought them from the owner
of an old house, which had collapsed several years ago.
We did not have concrete surface on the ceiling, and instead
of tiles we had big rough slabs of slate to stop the rain
on the roof. The walls of our house were like quilts sewn
up from multicolored pieces of odd cloths and kept us warm
in winter just like quilts. The bricks had gulped so many
rich aromas of sizzling bacon and baked onions that they
looked delicious and appetizing.
“Hey, twigs!” Father said sometimes after he had a couple
of beers in the pub. “Look at our gorgeous palace. Look
at our fortress!” he then slammed the front door admiringly.
The three of us kept our fingers crossed. We suspected the
roof would collapse if he pounded the walls with his fist.
Dad however stopped just in time as we all could hear the
old boards and beams of the ceiling crackle and creak.
“Look at Mother Nature, kids! Whew! Rich guys pay millions
for it! The air is as nourishing as brandy! The winds taste
of hot pea soup.” Gancho and mother stared at his hand as
it pointed at Black Peak. We, too, followed his spread fingers
with our eyes. It was no Mother Mature at all, if you asked
me. It was a naked barren hill of slate. After a couple
of years, the quarry would eat the hill slicing and sell
the stone to rich guys. The quarry was our home, the three
room ramshackle house that smelled of baked peppers, of
dad’s tobacco and washed clothes which we did not want to
put on, for fear that we might soil them. We, the twigs,
played between the crushing machines and the conveyer belts,
in the dust and rumble of the engines. “My twigs!” father
said one day pointing at us. “Look at them, man! Slim, and
strong, that’s what they are! I have been dreaming of such
kids all my life! I won’t regret a thing when I’ll have
to close the earth behind me. My twigs will touch the sky
for me. What do you say, Rossa?” At that moment mother forgot
the old tub and smiled. The warm blue waves in her eyes
touched us all and we wanted like mad for dad to grab the
big money. And we dreamed like mad to see mother in the
gorgeous fur coat that cost heaps of money, damn it!
“You, Color! It will be so much different when I snatch
the fat bundle. I’ll send you to study in Sofia, my girl.
At the best school there. And you’ll show them all. I’ll
buy you a ticket for the most expensive express train. Your
brothers will become miners in Dran quarry. If you spit
there, your spittle falls on marble. Can you beat it?” Mother
said our bones would rot in the arid slate dust; she also
added that snakes and lizards had ran away to spend the
summer at cooler places. There were even no flies in the
air - they were too lazy to bother and bite us. What were
we waiting for? “Wait, Rossa. You have to endure one more
month at most.”
My father went into business with Gancho. The two of them
planned to repair cars, vans and all sorts of jalopies squashed
in road accidents. They bought a jet burner, electric welding
machine, torch-lamp, iron sheets, and what not. Our yard
and the slate quarry smelled of broken cars, of gasoline,
and rust. One day, the broken cars smelled so nasty that
we, the wigs, suspected something was wrong. It really was.
Father had burned his right shoulder and arm, the doctor
said something that felt very Latin and deathly. An ambulance
came and took dad to hospital.
Scared stiff not to lose business, Gancho slogged away day
and night, limping, silent, stripped to the waist, lubricating
one of the miserable bone-shakers parked in our yard. Lubricants
of different colors mixed with his sweat shone on his dark
skin. He didn’t have time to drag bags of soap and washing
powder to mother, so we abandoned our struggle against the
gorge with the white floor. One evening, Dilly-dally man
brought mother a coat. We were all eating our pea soup that
was delicious and steamy, and I suspected my younger brother
had soused part of his long hair in his dish. It was good
that mother had not yet noticed. Gancho had not bought a
fur coat, just an ordinary one of thick cloth, so gray and
expensive my eyes hurt. I was itching for a fight and so
were my brothers. “Well…” Gancho stuttered. “You… you can…
put it on. Please… put… put it… on.” I hoped to God mother
would turn her back on him, and he, the stammering bastard,
would never again set foot in our kitchen. But mother didn’t
say anything, and Gancho, his limp more terrible than ever,
approached her and lifted the coat to her shoulders. I thought
the green hanger looked like a stem of a poisonous plant.
When his thick fingers touched ma’s shoulders I felt like
beating somebody for the first time in my life. When his
fingers brushed ma’s shoulders for a split second, my brothers
jumped from their chairs. If mother’s eyes had not been
soft as she watched Gancho’s crooked, thick fingers, we,
the twigs, would have hurled the gray coat into the white
gorge. We would have buried it under the Black Peak of the
mountain. Suddenly, mother seemed to forget all about us,
the twigs, about the wooden tub, and the pea soup. The blue
waves in her eyes hurried to Gancho and touched him, gently,
softly. He opened his mouth trying hard to say something,
and no words came out. A smile clambered up his eyebrows,
but the rest of his face did not dare to smile. “R… Rossa!”
“I won’t take it, Gancho,” she whispered. It was the first
time we had heard her whisper and it was the first time
she had called Dilly-dally man by his real name. Oh, big
money, where are you! We’d buy mother the most sparkling
fur coat, and we’d cut Gancho’s gift into million shreds.
We’d eat the threads of the nasty gray cloth! Come, big
money, quick! If you are late, we won’t give a damn about
you. If you don’t come in time, we don’t want you! We’ll
throw you right down into the white gorge. From that day
on, we hated the wardrobe in the sitting room. Mother stowed
away the gray coat in it. We never saw her put it on, but
several times we found her sitting in front of the open
wardrobe, silent, peeking in it, looking at the gray coat.
When dad came home from hospital, his car service went bankrupt
and he didn’t have money to buy mother anything. However,
he had been saving, and put all his savings into buying
a scraggy horse, a miserable hack, with a sagging paunch,
and very obstinate ribs that were about to bore through
the animal’s hide and run loose somewhere else.
“How come these knives entered your eyes, Rossa?” Dad asked
mother as he slowly walked the hack in front of our house.
For us, the animal was a hack for a day and a half. After
that, we, the twigs, saw it was a completely different affair.
Dad christened him Bucephalus after the war-horse of some
big shot in the past, but we nicknamed him Buck, admiring
his enormous hooves that could kick half of the Black Peak
down the mountain and set the crags rolling over to Greece!
Dad said we should act very carefully for the beast was
bad-tempered like a devil. We knew right away; it was the
general of all other horses in the whole area and I wish
you could see dad on Buck’s back! Dad’s denim jacket streamed
and fluttered in the wind like a banner, and the horse had
two tails, his own, and dad’s huge shaggy beard. Our Buck
became the talk of town in all quarries in Vitosha Mountain.
Miners, explosive experts and all sorts of workers came
to see the beast, and all of them, led by dad, went on spectacular
binges, which made the earth shake beneath the weight of
the empty bottles.
“Do you know why I bought him, Rossa?” Dad asked once. “I’ll
load the big money on his back! The money is near, and I
can smell it, and I can feel it rush into my pockets. One
day you’ll be a rich woman, you can take my word for it!”
The blue waves in mother’s eyes were almost invisible. Perhaps
dad felt they were not there at all; he bent his head and
his cheek touched her shoulder. “I am growing old, Rossa,”
We, the twigs, felt our hearts were in our mouths, small
like yellow pieces of Easter breads. We had to be tight-lipped.
Otherwise, our hearts would drop onto the floor shriveled
with fear and misery. All the three of us kept our fingers
crossed. Let dad be strong! Let dad pull himself together!
Keep your fingers crossed as tightly as you can.
It was good that we kept our fingers crossed so long. In
the morning, dad was again big and powerful. He mounted
Buck, then the horse and its rider beat it to the slate
quarry. “Gallop Buck, boy!” Dust and sparks spurted out
of the road when the horse’s enormous hooves hit it. Black
Peak, the white gorge and Vitosha Mountain quaked, shook,
and trembled like aspen leaves, but dad waved at us as proud
as a general and everything was ok again. In the evening,
before the two of them came back home, the crickets sang
so gently that you felt like getting married. The whole
earth was soft with crooning sounds of summer, of mother’s
tub floating gently down the streams of July, and the nights
were a song we loved. Then Gancho came again, but could
not ruin anything although he brought mother a bag full
of washing powder. Our path to the gorge was well trodden
- we had thrown so many cakes of soap there that the whole
area smelled of suds and clothes that had just been washed.
*** *** ***
“…. Colors, where are you? Hey, Colors!”
I was walking along the path to our old house. The dust,
the wind, the grass knew me, my childhood, my brothers and
mother. “Hey, Colors!” My father was shouting. He called
my sons Colors and he was happy they looked like him, black
hair, dark eyes, and springy legs. I could not see him,
but I could hear the hazel trees crackle. He was looking
for the boys. All of a sudden, I saw checkered shirts: my
sons were ten yards away standing dumbstruck by an old exhausted
horse. I couldn’t tell how long I stared, till a thought
crossed my mind: that horrible emaciated hack most probably
was our great Buck. The poor animal could hardly stand.
His legs and back twitched as he made desperate efforts
to keep his eyes open. “That’s ma!” my elder son cried out.
“Hey, ma, come quickly!”
“Ma, have a look at our stallion! Isn’t he gorgeous! He
can topple Black Peak from Vitosha Mountain with his hoof!
Watch out! Grandfather told us he was very dangerous.” “Ma,
what have you brought in that big bag?” I was going to show
the children a fur coat. It was not an expensive one. I
could imagine Rossa fumbling with its buttons, unbelieving,
but I wouldn’t lose any time. Slowly, gently, I’d put the
coat on her shoulders. The furs would bristle and sparkle
and she would be prettier than the sun, just as dad had