Elena Alexieva

THE BIRDS

The first bird fell from the sky at 4:42pm on August 3, in clear weather, complete windlessness, and an air temperature of thirty-three point four degrees Celsius. It was a greenfinch, Carduelis chloris, with a length between 14 and 16 centimeters and a wingspan between 25 and 27 centimeters, dark green plumage, a yellow stripe on the wings, and a yellow-edged tail.

The woman, of course, had no way of knowing all that. She had never seen a bird like that, despite the fact that the species is widespread not only in the semi-mountainous regions and plains with forests and shrubby vegetation, but also in areas inhabited by humans, in parks, gardens, yards, and all over the country’s entire territory. She didn’t even know that Carduelis chloris was not an endangered species, so one specimen more or less didn’t make any difference whatsoever.

The woman just heard the powerful thud on the window glass, got startled, and for a fragment of a second wondered who might be throwing stones, and all the way to the second floor at that, since the only thing on the other side of the fence was the other house—ironically, the same as hers—where she didn’t have enemies, just an unpleasant couple of elderly neighbors. Then she jumped out of bed, opened the window, and saw the bird down below.

The bird was lying on its back with its eyes open. One of its wings was spread. Its beak opened and closed convulsively, as if it were gasping for air. The woman wrapped the bird in a towel she’d grabbed on the way out and carried it toward the house. The bird started flailing in her hands, broke free, and once again fell on its back on the ground. The woman lifted it patiently.

Such a beautiful bird, she thought. With lemon-colored pants and a gray-green vest. It must’ve wrecked itself pretty badly. Its insides were probably a pulpy mess.

It’d be cruel to leave it like this. The bird was clearly struggling to stay alive. If she brought it inside, it would at least die in peace, rather than suffering in the heat-scorched garden. And that’s if another animal didn’t do away with it in the meantime. The neighbors’ dog, for instance, which had the habit of sneaking in through a hole in the fence and peeing on all the trees, the shrubs, and even the row of rose bushes. It was a young dog, friendly and dumb, and whenever she yelled at it, it sat down at a distance, stuck its tongue out, and took on the look of a grinning idiot.

The woman walked across the terrace, sat at the table in the dining room, put the bird in her lap, and waited. There was probably something smarter one was supposed to do in such cases, but she didn’t know what it was. She’d heard that when a horse broke its leg, it always got shot. But she didn’t own a gun and didn’t know how to shoot. The easiest thing to do would be to wring its neck, isn’t that what they say—“I’ll wring your neck like a chicken.” But even the thought of something like that paralyzed her. And besides, she had things to do, she was reading a book. And later, when the sun went down, she planned to water the roses.

Now the bird lay on her knees with its eyes half closed and almost without breathing, swaddled in the kitchen towel like a baby, and from time to time only opening its beak slightly, as though no longer gasping for breath, but chattering, soundlessly and incomprehensibly, just as the dying chatter with death.

Such a beautiful bird, the woman thought once again. She felt awkward about unswaddling it so as to take a closer look. She picked it up with all the gentleness she was capable of and went upstairs to the second floor.

The room was cool and simply, but pleasantly furnished. Quite pleasantly, in fact. The furniture was new, made from light-colored wood. The white tulle curtain trembled delicately over the open door to the balcony. The woman laid the bird down on the floor by the wall, climbed into bed, and picked up the book, which she had left open face down. It wouldn’t do the bird any good if she kept hovering over it and staring. No harm in doing a bit of reading while she waited. Who knew how long it would go on. It might be over in a minute, but it might also last until the morning.

She hadn’t even read two lines when the bird stirred. It wriggled out of its cocoon and, with surprising vigor, set out across the room, staggering as if drunk. It made it to the closest corner and backed up into it. It fixed the woman with one dark, shiny eye without any white in it, or at least it seemed to her that it did. Despite the short path it had covered, it had managed to shit on the parquet floor twice.

The woman got out of bed to clean up, and the bird, still staggering, dashed under the bed in terror. The woman wiped the droppings with a piece of toilet paper, then kneeled and reached out her hand. The bird panicked and rushed off, came out from under the bed, ran into the wall, and once again went still.

The woman sighed.

This is a miracle, she thought, but was still reluctant to rejoice. She knew that death liked dirty tricks and didn’t hesitate to play them on anyone. So the miracle didn’t cancel out the dying, not yet.

She slowly lifted the towel. Then, clear and insistent, an anxious scream flew in from the outside, and the bird in the room immediately responded with an identical, astoundingly clear and resonant scream of its own. Then followed something that the woman could only describe as a brief exchange. She even had the feeling she could understand what the two birds were saying to each other. Carefully watching the bird she had until now expected to perish, she threw the towel over it and grabbed it. The dying was obviously being postponed, so there was nothing for the bird to do inside the house.

She brought it out to the balcony and set it down on the mosaic. The bird didn’t stir. It really was remarkably beautiful from up close. It would make for a great photo. And the woman, who generally detested such things, disappeared inside the room for a moment, and then, having forgotten her principles, reappeared with her phone in her hand—right in time to see the bird jump onto the railing and then fly over to the plum tree, where it was immediately joined by another, completely identical bird.

Amazing, the way it recuperated, as though nothing’s happened, the woman thought. And so quickly, too.

But she wasn’t disappointed at all, on the contrary.

The miracle had taken exactly twenty-eight minutes. It was still too early to water the roses, the sun hadn’t even begun to set.

A week earlier, the woman and the man had sat at the same table, in the same chairs. Everything in the house seemed to her rejuvenated, brighter, somehow more pleasantly and nicely arranged. She had taken care of everything herself, and this filled her with completely justified pride.

“When did they say they were coming?”

“At five. But they’re going to call before that. We’re supposed to meet down in the village. Then I’ll drive in front of the truck and show them the way.”

“They couldn’t come earlier?”

“I guess not, I don’t know. They said five. Why? You’re in a hurry?”

“No, not at all. Don’t worry, I’ll wait for them.”

He’s lying, the woman thought with a certain satisfaction. She knew he was lying for her sake. He wasn’t lying to her, but because of her.

“If you’re in a hurry, you should go. I’ll ask the driver to help me bring everything in. It’s not that much stuff anyway—just a dresser, a bed, a mattress, and a bedside table. We’ll manage.”

“I told you, I’m not in a rush. It’s why I came.”

It was hot, but not as hot as it was going to get later. All the doors and windows were open, it smelled of paint.

The gate to the garden slammed, and someone outside gave a shout. The dog next door started barking frantically.

Before they even saw the man who stood at the threshold, the two of them—the woman and the man—smelled him. He was slight, skinny, with an unkempt beard that covered his whole face up to his eyes, and as filthy as a human being could be while still being called that. Underneath the enormous jacket he was wearing, which reached down to his knees, he had on a sweater, a shirt that had once been striped, and god knows what else. In comparison to the rest of him, his hands—sticking out below the sleeves, which had been rolled countless times—were enormous, like shovels.

The woman stood up and headed toward the small filthy man, but didn’t dare approach him too closely.

“Welcome. Come in, come in.”

Then she turned to the man by the table: “This is Svetlozar, from one street down. He’s the one I gave the old sofa to. The broken one.”

The man by the table smiled warmly. He was tall, solid, with a broad chest and a beautiful head. Compared to the guy who’d just arrived, he looked like a young man.

Though I wouldn’t be surprised if they were actually the same age, the woman thought.

“So how is it, how’s the sofa?” the man said, instead of a greeting.

“It’s great,” the other man answered. “Does its job.” He remained standing, at a certain distance. “Nice to meet you, I’m Svetlozar. Svetlozar Mihaylov. Svetlozar Bozhidarov Mihaylov.”

“Good to meet you, Svetlozar,” the man said, and his smile became even wider. “It’s good for neighbors to know each other. That’s what we’re meant to do, as people, we should help each other out . . .”

“Your wife, she brought the sofa all the way over to my place. You’ve a good wife.”

“She’s a good one, yes,” the man agreed. “Sorry we don’t have much time right now, we’re waiting for some furniture to be delivered. As you can see yourself . . . But you should definitely drop by another time.”

The woman walked Svetlozar Bozhidarov Mihaylov to the door and locked it behind him. The dog started barking again, but quickly quieted down.

“What time is it?”

“Fifteen to four. It’s still early. I thought you weren’t in a hurry?”

“I’m not. Just asking.”

“He’s not a bad guy, it seems. But he drinks a lot. Everyone here drinks.”

“Not just here.”

“And why did you tell him I was your wife?”

“I didn’t say that. He said it. And besides, it’s better if they think there’s a man in the house.”

“Except there isn’t.”

“That’s exactly why.”

The second bird fell from the sky at 3:22pm on August 7, in the same weather conditions, and an air temperature of thirty-five point one degrees Celsius. It was a Sylvia curruca, a lesser whitethroat, with a length between 11 and 13 centimeters and a wingspan between 17 and 19 centimeters, a gray head, light gray back and wings, and completely white chest and belly. Both birds belonged to the Passeriformes order, though Sylvia curruca wintered in Africa while Carduelis chloris did not.

This time the thud came from the kitchen window. It was not as loud as the first one but it was still loud enough to startle a person. The woman, who was sitting in the living room, heard it and immediately knew what it was. Without any doubt. She did not hesitate, even though a second bird falling from the sky in a span of just three days seemed, to put it mildly, strange. Quickly, though without rushing like a lunatic as she had the first time, she ran to the pantry, grabbed an old t-shirt that she used as a rag, and came out into the garden. She surprised herself, surprised that her brain was working automatically without having to think, surprised by the preciseness and composure of all her movements, by her inner mobilization, but also by the deep resignation, which bordered on indifference, of the kind that doctors and firefighters probably experience whenever they fight to save somebody’s life.

The little bird she found down below was gray and tiny, even smaller than a sparrow. It could easily fit in the palm of her hand. It looked to her like a little mouse, probably because of its coloring. It did none of the things that the previous bird had done: it didn’t flail, didn’t twist its head, didn’t dramatically struggle for air, didn’t even appear to have noticed the colossal outline of its savior, which was hanging over it. To her—but mostly to its own—relief, the little bird simply closed its eyes and died.

Now she had the opportunity to examine it as closely as she liked, though there wasn’t that much to examine. It was just an ordinary gray bird, without even a single spot of color. It didn’t have any sort of pattern, or hue, or lush plumage to make it more attractive. Well, perhaps it had made some sort of pleasant sound, of the kind that—due to a lack of imagination—is described as “singing,” but that was now over.

The only thing left for her to do was bury it in some faraway corner of the garden. The woman, of course, knew that burying a dead bird, and such a small one at that, was complete nonsense, but at these temperatures it would quickly start to rot and stink, and this was something she couldn’t allow.

For a moment, she wondered where all dead birds go when they die, which probably happens every minute of every hour, so really, birds should be falling from the sky not just from time to time, but raining down constantly, over both deserted and inhabited areas, regardless of their geographical specificities and locations—but that, in fact, was an issue that she did not care about whatsoever.

What probably happens, she told herself, is that some other animals eat them, like the neighbors’ dumb dog. And that’s why we never see them.

Then she decided against it.

And what if it was still . . . ?

It’s true that the bird looked completely dead, but the woman had no way of being sure. She couldn’t, for instance, press her ear against its chest—firstly, because the bird itself was about the size of her ear. And secondly, because she had no idea what a bird’s heart was supposed to sound like.

(She remembered: at school, they’d learned that birds originated from dinosaurs. At this point, that didn’t seem to her that far-fetched.)

She picked up the bird with the rag, careful not to touch it, carried it inside, and set it down on the table. She felt like she needed to give it a chance.

Half an hour later, she carried it back out and dropped it into the tall grass on the other side of the garden gate, where the neighbors’ dog would surely find it.

Svetlozar Bozhidarov Mihaylov had two sons: Koko and another one. Koko was feebleminded and followed his father everywhere. The woman saw the other son only when she went over to their place to drop off the sofa. Both of them looked exactly like their father, though the feebleminded son also had a beard like his dad’s, while the other one didn’t. And yet, the beardless son frightened the woman as soon as she saw him, while the feebleminded one didn’t.

She knew them, the father and his feebleminded son, from before. Two years earlier, they had come to dig a grave for her dead dog. Her dog wasn’t like that of the neighbors, not some half-witted mongrel. It was a purebred—enormous, sensitive and elegant, a real prince. At the end of its otherwise happy and contented life, the dog had become seriously sick and then died after great suffering. The woman was grateful that at least she had somewhere to bury it. She and the dog had spent many happy moments in that house and its garden.

It was the end of February, during a mild winter. They’d used a wheelbarrow to bring the dog from the car to where they were going to bury it. Now it lay in her lap, relaxed and peaceful, as though it were sleeping. It hadn’t slept so deeply and calmly in months. The woman kept caressing its head and kissing its forehead, which was already growing cold. At first, she tried to hide her tears, but then she gave up.

The grave was supposed to be deep and as large as a person’s. She didn’t think that the two scrawny men, who were no bigger than she was, would manage, but they dug diligently, with a kind of quiet solemnity that befitted the situation completely.

“Very beautiful dog,” Svetlozar Bozhidarov Mihaylov muttered.

From time to time, his feebleminded son paused, leaned on his shovel, and smiled distractedly.

“Keep digging, son, keep digging, so we can be done here.”

In response, the son always gave his father a trusting look full of childish adoration, and then obediently continued.

On the other side of the wire fence, which separated the yard from the neighbors to that side, a white rooster strutted about, holding its head high and listening intently. The low sun, already on its way toward the snowless horizon, gazed into the fresh grave with a cool curiosity.

The woman hadn’t seen such a dignified funeral, not even for a human being.

After they lowered the dog into the hole and then filled it with earth, she gave the father and son fifty levs each. It was way too much money for that kind of job, but she didn’t want to be cheap. She’d made up her mind. Then she went down to the cellar, filled a sac with red apples, and gave it to the feebleminded son.

That was the last time she’d sought them out.

After she started spending more time at the house, the woman developed the habit of locking the gate, even during the day. And not because she was scared, but because she wanted to spare herself unwanted visitors. In the countryside, an unlocked door was as good as an open invitation. Once, she’d found a woman she barely knew in the garden and whom she’d never exchanged more than a few words with. Another time, the loud-mouthed inspector had burst in, woken her up and before she could come to her senses, rushed her into letting him inspect the water meters.

It’s not that she felt safer when the house was locked. She simply lived there.

One afternoon, someone knocked on the gate. The woman heard the knocks clearly, followed by someone’s incoherent ranting on the other side of the fence. She hesitated. She didn’t feel like seeing anyone, but some inexplicable force, that of her own confusion, pushed her outside and made her open the gate.

Standing there in front of it was Svetlozar Bozhidarov Mihaylov.

He wasn’t drunk, or at least didn’t seem to be. The woman got flustered. She wasn’t dressed for company, not in this heat. Her face was a mess, and her hair was in disarray. She’d needed to dye it for a while now.

“Come in.”

“Thought I’d drop by. I was just down there, promised some people I’d do some work for them.”

The slight filthy man squeezed his way into the house.

She invited him to sit down in the kitchen. She’d just cleaned the dining and the living rooms. The polished parquet floors shone, the cushions she’d puffed were lined across the new sofa like soldiers.

“Sorry,” she said. “Just got done mopping, it’s still wet.”

Svetlozar Bozhidarov Mihaylov accepted her apology in silence.

“And where’s mister? Is mister here?”

The woman pondered his question for a moment. She didn’t understand what he was asking. Maybe he had been drinking, after all.

Then she realized.

“No,” she replied. “Mister’s not here. He went back to the city, he’s got stuff to do there.”

The man nodded.

“Well, if he’s not here . . .”

But he didn’t move or get up to leave.

The woman felt obligated to carry on the pointless conversation.

“How’s everyone at home?”

The man shrugged.

“We’re all . . . we’re fine.”

She knew what he’d come for, but it was out of the question that she’d offer him any. She wouldn’t be able to get rid of him if she did. And she didn’t keep any rakia in the house, anyway. She had some whiskey and some gin, and a little bit of expensive cognac, left at the bottom of the bottle. It was “mister” who’d brought it. A long, long time ago. The woman was saving it for special occasions.

She didn’t ask him if he wanted any coffee. It would’ve sounded like she was mocking him. And besides, there was no guarantee Svetlozar Bozhidarov Mihaylov would turn down the offer.

“I have some work for you as well,” she said. “In the garden. Some overgrown shrubs need to be cleared. But later on, not now. I’ll let you know when I get to them.”

The man nodded again.

They remained there silently for a while—she, standing behind his back, as though keeping watch, and he, sitting on the battered stool which she never sat on, but only climbed on when she needed to reach for something up high.

She thought back to the time she’d taken the sofa to him. She remembered how surprised she was when she saw his house, which she’d expected to be a crumbling shack, but it wasn’t. It was a solid, three-story house, bigger than her own. True, its brick walls had never been finished with plaster or painted, its railings were rusty, and the glass in many of the windows was broken, but it was a real house nevertheless. She also remembered the woman, the mother of the two boys, the feebleminded one and the beardless one, who looked like a man herself, with her square expressionless face and her gray, closely chopped hair—the mother who did not smile even once as she watched her men excitedly fussing around the rickety sofa, which had arrived as a gift from fate. Later, someone in the village had told her that it wasn’t him who’d built the house, that he’d inherited it from his wife’s brother, but that didn’t matter. Her house was also inherited. She hadn’t built it herself.

Sometimes she woke up in the middle of the night and thought about it until dawn. She tossed around in her bed made of light wood, suffocated in her goose-down covers, twisted her satin sheets, and racked her brain about whom she should leave it to. Not years from now. Tomorrow. Right away. She was younger than all her potential heirs, could never feel at peace in the pleasantly furnished room, innocent in a girly way, where the night wind inflated the tulle curtain, and it seemed to her that there was somebody there.

There was no point in asking him.

He had his own house. Bigger than her own.

Svetlozar Bozhidarov Mihaylov finally stood up to leave. She could hardly restrain herself from opening the window immediately. Once he was gone, she’d have to not only air out the kitchen but open the windows everywhere, so as to create a draft through the whole house.

“Is he coming back soon?”

“Who?”

“Your husband.”

“When he finishes all he has to do, he’ll come back. Don’t worry about it.”

“I’ll come by again. For that job, in the garden.”

Of course. For the garden. But if he thought she’d serve him rakia . . .

She slammed the door behind him, then turned the key all the way.

Across, on the other side of the street, which was not really a street but a rough, gravel-covered road, the feebleminded Koko squatted while waiting for his father—as soon as he heard the gate slamming, he lifted his adoring gaze.

The next day, when the heat was at its worst, there was a knock on the gate again. The neighbors’ mutt started barking wildly. The woman heard its chain rattling like mad as it pulled and pulled in the direction of the street.

I hope the chain breaks, she thought.

The intruder stood at her gate and screamed at the top of his lungs, incomprehensibly and threateningly, and the woman couldn’t figure out whether his screams were addressed at her or whether he was squabbling with the dog. She was able to make out some slurred curse, which was then followed by another. Everything else he mumbled was unintelligible.

She had the feeling the whole village could hear.

Quietly, she locked the front door of the house, went upstairs, entered her room, and closed the door. This was as far away as she could escape.

The next day it happened again.

The woman wasn’t afraid, no. All she wanted was for it to stop. She could always call “mister.” He’d take care of it. But she rejected the idea immediately.

What kind of nonsense would that be, she said to herself. I’m not going to start calling him to come save me every time someone knocks on my door, am I? That would be an embarrassment.

She was sure that Svetlozar Bozhidarov Mihaylov didn’t mean her any harm. She kept telling herself that he wasn’t a bad person, this ruined father of two sons—the messed up one and the other, who supposedly wasn’t messed up (though there was something frightening about him, something strange in his face, beastly, but that didn’t make him a criminal, did it?), this harmless village drunk and penniless pauper, despite his big house, or even precisely because of it.

And how could she forget the decency with which he’d behaved when they buried her dog?

She had to talk to him, plain and simple. She would be friendly but firm. She’d explain he was bothering her, and that she would come look for him when she had work to be done. Without any rudeness, without threats. If she had to, as a sign of good will, she’d give him something else as a gift. She had plenty of junk in the house. The old vacuum cleaner, for instance, which had stopped working after the renovations, so she planned to buy a new one during her next visit to the city. The problem with it probably wasn’t serious, and he’d surely find someone to fix it. Or the cooking stove, which had been installed in the kitchen when the house was built, though it was old even then, since they’d already used it for years in their apartment in the city. She intended to replace it, too, even though there was nothing wrong with it. It worked fine, except the burners were so corroded that they crumbled and fell apart at every touch. As a last resort, she could offer him some money—under the pretense of an advance payment for clearing out the garden.

Of course, she wouldn’t let him set foot in the garden. Or in the house.

The woman calmed down and waited.

But Svetlozar Bozhidarov Mihaylov never showed up again.

She would sometimes see the feebleminded Koko wandering down the street. The dog always barked at him, and he responded with incoherent screams and curses, just like his father. The woman tried to ignore him.

That poor feebleminded boy, she thought. Maybe, at some point, there had been a way to help him. But now it was too late.

The summer ended and she went back to the city. She felt well rested. She’d stopped waking up in the middle of the night and wondering whom to leave the house to—she, who was still so young. She loved it, it was dear to her. And yet, it had been built for another life, by other people. And there was no other life that the woman could give it. There were no other people either.

And she didn’t have to look for them or wait for them at all, there was a much easier way.

I could always sell it, she would think. Always.

Then she would close her eyes and sleep the dreamless sleep of the dead, all the way through to morning.


ELENA ALEXIEVA is the author of 14 books of poetry and prose, including the short story collections Readers’ Group 31, Who, and Pets Syndicated, as well as the novels Knight, The Devil, and Death, The Nobel Laureate, and others. Her plays have been collected in two volumes: Angel Fire (2014) and Victims of Love (2015).  As a playwright, she has received the Askeer and Ikar national awards for new Bulgarian drama, as well the Award of the Society of Independent Theatre Critics in Bulgaria. She is also winner of the Helikon Prize for modern Bulgarian fiction. Her novel Saint Wolf received the 2019 Novel of the Year Award of the 13 Centuries of Bulgaria National Endowment Fund, the yearly prose award of the Kultura portal, and the Peroto National Prose Award. Her latest short story collection, The Breaking of Samsara, also received the 2021 Peroto National Prose Award, as well as the National Yordan Radichkov Short Fiction Award.

Elena Alexieva lives in Sofia, where she works as a freelance interpreter and writer. 


About the Translator:

EKATERINA PETROVA is a literary translator and nonfiction writer. She holds an MFA in Literary Translation from the University of Iowa, where she was awarded the Iowa Arts Fellowship and helped edit Exchanges: Journal of Literary Translation. Her translations and writing have appeared in Asymptote, Words Without Borders, The Southern Review, 91st Meridian, European Literature Network, Drunken Boat, EuropeNow, and B O D Y, among others. Her translation-in-progress of Iana Boukova’s novel Traveling in the Direction of the Shadow received a 2021 PEN/Heim Translation Fund Grant. Her work has also been supported by fellowships from the Elizabeth Kostova Foundation, ART OMI, and Traduki. Currently based in Sofia, Ekaterina has spent time living, studying, or working in Kuwait, St. Paul, New York, London, Berlin, Paris, Belgrade, Northern Ireland, and the south of France.


Read more work by Elena Alexieva:

Fiction in Europe Now

Non-fiction in Words Without Borders

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