Having quit the village and moved back into Varna City, I can no longer take my dogs down into the nature-blessed but garbage-strewn fields. Nor can I invite them into the garden because now there is no garden. So when aging Casper has diarrhea sometimes in the middle of the night, I just have to get dressed and go out with him. We live in a big apartment, from whose open windows and balcony slot we can inhale the mist and steam from the Black Sea, its chopped up face full of dictatorial severity in the tight-lipped chill of March.
So now I must walk the dogs through the streets and amid the descending jumble of construction sites that slope towards the sea. The workers are performing at a dizzying rate, and by summer (assuming further pandemic and a nuclear ‘winter’ can somehow be averted) will have blossomed into landscaped Edens with sweet green curlicue playgrounds and buildings tart and tawny filling up with new buyers and guests (at least one of the buildings is a hotel). It is like a great stage being built for a concert in a large metropolitan summer park. Life will come: flowers, trees, people. It’s just a matter of time if the shadows stay calm..
When I take the dogs the other way, up towards the unspectacular but very useful little ‘town’ of Vinitsa, we sometimes go the back route over an undulating unpaved path among backstreet houses. When there is no rain, the route is a joy because we avoid the traffic, including the endless grind of cargo trucks carrying materials to the work-sites. But when there is or has been even so much as a steady drizzle, it's like trying to dance across a great bowl of cold mushroom soup.
When the houses and barking dogs wear out, and we have reached the end of the line, we climb up into the cemetery and take the long scenic route through to the other reverse view of the stone-stiff panorama. Unlike many upscale American graveyards where the paths are as manicured as a monarch’s garden, with Michelangelo-style headstones often so clean and smooth that you look around to see which way the barber went, these Bulgarian gravestones can appear pretty humble, like row after row of bad teeth; nevertheless, unlike the Evergreen Cemetery back in St. Augustine, Florida, where the skeletons of my family are encased, wordless and useless like car keys in a freezer or teddy bears abandoned by mistake at the truck stops of the world and thus companionless, here in the cemetery, this one, there is a different choreography, one which the uninitiated might meet with a mild shock: a memorial face emblazoning every slab. For in Bulgarian death orchards you always see a picture of whoever lies beneath the symbolic chunk that keeps the stats. Some are fresh recruits; others have been there for a while. Moreover, in this particular locale, the graves are so close together that you need special rock climbing equipment just to deliver flowers to those farther back; otherwise, you could break your neck vaulting and weaving your way across the rubble of ‘others’ just to reach your fondly remembered one.
But you see the faces of everyone at the party. Unfortunately, as is the way of much of Eastern Europe, they are not exactly full of merriment; it’s not like Facebook where everyone is just shitting themselves with happiness in every take. Nor as in America, where nowadays, instead of mourning the death, they ‘celebrate the life.’ and everyone grins (but wholesomely) as they set off the balloons. Here, it’s more like passport photos that have been transferred to headstones.
Yet they are not morbid at all: they don’t glare and gasp like wild-eyed evangelists in a sweating circus tent; they don’t goof like village idiots about to masturbate in the town square. They simply regard my approach, but I don’t think they watch me go, which is the only hint that perhaps they haven’t really been paying attention. In fact, it wouldn’t surprise me to see them yawn. One thinks of workers punching time clocks at the doors of factories where there is no time inside.
You see…what is it?...the overwhelming ordinariness of it all, how life became death almost casually, like someone pulling abstractedly on his ear or turning the pages of a dull book. The people looking at you must have had opinions, desires, and some of their hearts must have been beating with singular or merely obsessive ardor that now only other dead people might remember, but in the photos they seem staid and mostly unconcerned: faces typically without wonder or particular energy, nor any look of panic. None of them think they are standing in front of a firing squad or that an asteroid is about to strike the earth. Saint or psychopath, they just look out at you in that bemused, faintly unwelcoming way of stony villages. What do you want with us?
But I am a congenial guy, and so I have made friends with some of these dead people. To the more pleasant ones I always say hello and I can almost imagine them nodding back at me. Once they have gotten to know me, of course. I read their names and the dates of their existence on earth, and then I look again at their faces. Some of the photos were clearly well-chosen by family members to bring out the best in them or at least lift their personalities upwards and outwards. At the far gate, where we exit, there is a photo of a truly beautiful woman, swarthy and raven-headed like so many in this country, who died at age 28. She doesn’t really belong here, I always think. Yet here she is, and her eyes never follow me as I go. In that sense she has much in common with many of the living I have known.
I have gotten to the point where I look forward to seeing them, walking among them in these the days of me and my dogs, and sometimes I wonder (I am 72, soon to be 73) if I am not getting to know my future companions and that this is a dress rehearsal for wherever I might end up. Elsewhere, because I can’t spot a bit of room here. There is a feral dog that lives here and guards the barracks of the dead at night. He is a good dog, I can tell, even as he raises hell with me and Casper and Poppy. He has a job. There is a green ribbon stapled in his ear to indicate that he is still free to roam and live.
In the daytime, there are other living people wandering about, many with dogs of their own, and the birds twirl overhead. The flocks of spring are assembling; they always know what time it is. I see that there is nothing to be afraid of, and I recognise not only the futility but the superfluity of my unspeakable terror of annihilation. When I have these thoughts, the dead simply shake their heads. They seem to be saying, “What are you so upset about? This is just a form of adjustment, can’t you see?” And what is really amazing is that the by-passers on the street, who mostly just ignore me, do not provide for me any sense of connection at all. In other words, there seems mostly little or no difference between their faces and those in the graveyard adorning the stones and markers. Only the legs that carry the pedestrians around distinguish one from the other
Now for a true story.
Once, in London fifty years ago, at evening, I was walking along near Kings Cross station and I came across a gaggle of prostitutes. They stood together, guffawing and smacking their lips, sometimes stretching out in a queue to better present themselves to the passing punters, and they had that rough, hard look of street women. It was impossible to imagine having sex with them because of their utter lack of ‘positive’ emotion. I used to wonder if they loved anything at all.
Now I understand that of course they did. Just maybe not much, and it’s likely they hadn’t received all that much either.
In a dream only the other night (it’s probably why I recall them so vividly), I imagined that I was wandering in some big city, London I guess, and I saw these women. Half a century had come and gone, and there they were, still assembled for the same reason, only they were much older now, as you would figure – about my age it seemed. In the twilight, they sort of glowed – an emaciated, decadent gray color lighting up their wind-bitten, street-burnished faces. There was a haunting, centuries old starvation in their eyes, but the closer I came, the more I realized that they had, in fact, grown kind. It was like they were carrying lamps by their sides.
They had allowed softness to enter at last, all other enameling scraped or rubbed away like mascara after a long night in dark quarters, and the frigid Kings Cross masks discarded. They were just old women now, smiling from the twilight…at me, I think…as they plied their timeless trade. The pigeons were gavotting nearby, and the birds making casual circles overhead.
I smiled back, ready to share a glass of old sherry with the deadest among them, for I felt she wouldn’t rob me or sneer at me or try to make me hurry. We had conquered the frost, we were beyond cruelty and harm. Moreover, she didn’t look bad. She was a ghost of the city, her eyes glittered in the twilight, and I could see that death had brought out the best in her.
“Can I go with you?” I asked.
“Yes, as long as you don’t try to redeem me.”
“Redeem you? Well…why’s that?”
She paused and powdered her nose.
“Because you have the look of a guy who is still looking for love. And by now I am too much of an old whore.”
She laughed and so did I.
“All right then,” she beckoned. “Come along. You will be comfortable.”
By Eric Le Roy