Tiny pinpricks of flaming orange light the night with a soft bronze glow. Across the still lake, dark mountains loom high above the city. The town center glows brightest, and one can easily imagine the various restaurants bustling with groups of friends and families, spending their hours conversing over bottles of beer, wine or rakia. Music pulses from the open doors of the cafes turned bar-clubs that line the main square. The young people have returned home from university for the weekend and mingle with their peers, swapping stories of student life in Sofia, Plovdiv or Veliko Tarnovo, the larger more “happening” cities in Bulgaria.
I finished my studies in one of these cities a few years ago and soon after went abroad for work, like most of my friends and classmates. But two weeks ago, I was called home: an unexpected illness in the family. Now here I stand, waiting.
Inevitably a group of boys in blue, green, and red track suits laugh their way up the wide pedestrian street, while a group of high school girls, dressed in almost identical black leather jackets and gold or white-lined wedge boots, strut along the flowered medians, trying unsuccessfully to share one paisley umbrella. A baba hobbles across the square carrying her Billa bag of unknown contents, wary of slipping on the new, but cheap, red bricks as slick as ice in the misting rain. Once home, she will stoke the fire, and the smell of roast peppers and wood will rise from the chimney and blanket the street. The stray dogs, the one that lives by the pizza stall and the one that uses a piece of wet cardboard for his bed across the way, bark, adding their voices to the night.
I can’t stand the sight of these dogs and look down and away when I pass them, knowing there’s nothing I can do for them. In other places around the world their cousins sleep on soft, warm beds by the fire, bellies filled with treats.
A newly-formed couple sits on a bench in each other’s arms, hidden from general view in the shadow of the monument of Hristo Botev–the poet, revolutionary and national hero who died decades ago in the mountains above the city, helping to free Bulgaria from Ottoman rule. The influence of Turkey has long since left this region, but the tourist shop continues to sell rose flavored lokum. A mother with red lips and a white coat pushes a pram with sturdy wheels and a clear rain screen along the edge of the square. She waits outside the non-stop with the baby as her husband steps inside to buy diapers and a bag of coffee. If he can afford to clean his BMW every weekend, he can afford to buy the good coffee even if it’s not on sale. Notes from tonight’s concert in the city’s Concert Zala drift from the windows and over the square. The tickets were too expensive and the audience is small. The musicians out number the patrons two to one, I’m sure. Though concert etiquette is universal, there will be one old man who insists on answering his cell phone in the middle of the Mozart and the conductor will frown.
My father used to take me to these concerts and now he has three weeks or months to live, but through it all he smiles soft and quiet. He seems to take strength from those around him: friends, neighbors, family who gather near. It seems like everyone knows something I do not and I wonder if perhaps my father is right: what is work, what is life if you go through it alone and so far from family. I find myself wondering if I should stay.
A woman with flushed cheeks and dripping hair marches through the square. I know her. We went to primary school, then high school together. She is likely late. She was probably supposed to meet her group of friends an hour ago, but today she was in the mountains. I imagine she took a new trail, one that looked down on the mountain village and its old ski lift. It was rumored an American movie star had bought a house in the small town, but I knew she didn’t believe it or care. Perhaps she had finally seen the wild horses and had eaten lunch by a small stream before climbing down the rocky slopes with a backpack full of wild nettle for her mother’s green soup. The woman’s phone rings: idvam, idvam. I’m coming. I’m coming. She is one of the few with the vision and fervor to keep this city from succumbing to the same fate the region’s villages have met over the last few decades: an emptying, a mass migration of people in search of a chance for a better future.
Perhaps, like her, I could find a vision for this city and fight to keep it alive. Maybe if I found a partner, someone with whom to experience the small moments, good and bad, I could be content here, could access the joy in shared mundane tasks and embrace a simple life. I could do more for this place I called…I call home.
To the left and right of the city center, past the Kaufland in one direction and the language school in the other, streets over from the open air pazar, where fresh fruits, vegetables and jars of honey are sold by comfortable people from the surrounding villages during the week, the tall block buildings, patchworks of lived-in and abandoned apartments, seem to reach almost as high as the Balkan peaks, cutting off the outside world. Headlights from cars on the highway fail to penetrate the boundaries of the city as they rush by heedless of speed limits, brazen in the face of the one cop who sits bored and indifferent under the bridge before the train station.
There’s something peaceful about looking at the city from a distance. The cracked and riddled sidewalks fade. The restless roars of the racing motorbikes ridden by punk teenagers and twenty-somethings, desperately seeking a way out, are muffled. I should get back to my father. I only meant to go for a short walk, but I still stand waiting. I wait for the lights to grow brighter, for the lake to overflow, for the rays of the rising sun to burn through the fog hanging around the shoulders of the tired and crumbling town. I wait for something, anything, to change, for something to be different, for a way in or out.
Montana Rogers is a writer and educator. Her work has appeared or is forthcoming in The Sea Letter, Dream Noir, honey & lime, and other various publications. She is a graduate of Simon Fraser University’s The Writer’s Studio. You can find out more about her on her website.