The howl of the years
by Stoyan Valev
[ fiction - march 04 ]
Translated from Bulgarian by Ivailo Dagnev.
"And what happened in the end?"
The silence froze again over their heads like the crystal chandelier, threatening to fall down on them any second.
He had noticed that on evenings like this one the questions, like sharks, surfaced quite unexpectedly. There is something mystic in the hours before the New Year comes in. It is as if we listen for the first time to the whisper of time. We even realize that it robs us if we perceive it as the sand in the hourglass, trickling down incessantly. Time does not move. It has frozen for quite a while, we are the ones who keep changing, but we don't want to admit it... We are crucified on its frozen face.
Evenings like this one lustfully predispose to foul silence. You just sit and watch how the questions take you by surprise.
Before you realize it, the first hour strikes - the hour of the simplest questions.
In order to answer them you have to turn your pockets upside down, to look into every moment over and over again. Actually, are the answers possible at all, Spiridon sighed, aren't they just the other side of the questions?
The pine logs were crackling in the fireplace, as if searching in the flames for an answer to their unasked questions? The lilac flares in the fireplace resembled the last illusions in one's life, behind which the snapping deep meaning of nothingness is visible. Or it might be that nothingness is the essence of the absolute meaning?
Peter, the tomcat, stretched out in front of the fireplace, was staring at them both - ferociously somehow, but at the same time with a deep inborn understanding. He was purring monotonously, his head between his paws. As if his was counting something, in a Sisyphean, stubborn manner, hopelessly cheerful, with resigned persistence. Well, he is hiding in his eyes an abyss full of questions, but where are the answers, Spiridon sighed.
Bella, the German shepherd, was crisscrossing the spacious sitting room, raising her elegant muzzle and sniffing the air anxiously. She was as if torn between her two masters, extending her paw now to Gloria's lap, now to Spiridon's hands. As if she was trying to join together the severed threads between them?
They were sitting opposite each other, as they had been in the habit for years. She was in white, her head slightly turned to one side. Standing half-face, she was lit by the pale flicker of the lamp, an imitation of a candle, which gave her face the look of one worried, one almost in tears. He was in his usual black coat, only his tie was gleaming in gentle blue, as if it were a suddenly frozen flame.
"What happened in the end?"
This time the question sounded abruptly, it stirred the air and the light shuddered as if in a shy, though reconciled with its fate fright, shooting up then its tip. A fleeting moment. One of those that turn our lives upside down. We live in this way, aspire to go up, to touch God, and yet we keep going down in order to reach the truths about us.
"When?" Spiridon answered with a question, as he liked to do. He knew she was disgusted at this habit of his and tried to avoid it, but this time something spurred him to challenge her...
"Until now!" She snapped at him. And smiled in a way that made him sigh and forgive her. He knew only too well that behind this smile of hers the other face of Hell was hiding. Because Hell bore her name in his life.
"I am eighty-five, you are five years behind... Is that too little?" he gave a laugh.
"We have been through what - Oh Lord! - monarchists, fascists, communists and now...?" she lapsed into silence, squeamishly pursing her lips.
"Now what? What are we going through now? Retribution? Or we might be in the new antechamber of the next circle of Hell?" His irony was transparent, he was made of it all, but there was also fear in him.
"I'm interested in how they will define the experiences we are going through today, at this very moment!" she smiled ironically.
"The corpse, Gloria, is still not submitted to autopsy. The nation's illness has not been diagnosed. After fascism and communism, something new was born, something we are living through and it is more dreadful than the previous two!"
"Some mixture of those two isn't it?" she asked.
"Might be, who knows..." the old man said and stared at the fire.
"We are still alive", she sighed dreamily, cupped her hand to her ear and listened to something she could only hear: "Can you hear the years, Spiridon?"
"They are just like wolves," he muttered through clenched teeth and drank from the glass, which he held on the floor, next to his rocking chair: "They are howling and howling..." And he seemed as if he were listening to their howl.
He pictured them running towards him - snapping, predatory, ravenous and insidious. The years were full of hatred and lies, betrayals and concealments of the truth for him. It so happened that he had been a journalist at various times through various social orders. Now those times were identified in pseudo-scholarly ways; actually that was his lifetime. There was no difference in any of these periods of time - the truth had always been strictly pieced out, isolated, guarded, cunningly manipulated, concealed, erased, effaced. Even those truths that could not be concealed had been turned into banalities; there were thousands of ways to do that.
The years started coming in packs like wolves. Ready to bite again.
"Why?" she stretched and caressed the armchair with her fingers: "Why are the years like wolves, darling? They are like lovers...They make love even before the woman's husband..."
"Possibly, yes, but who knows what is true, or false, who knows the past, or what is simply the future?" He sighed.
"No one knows. The soul might know, mightn't it?" she looked at him with curiosity.
"It's possible, but I don't believe it!" Spiridon smiled with contempt.
"Then it should be the body. It stores all our memories, doesn't it?" she said playfully.
"I doubt it..." He reached for the drink, took a sip, started to nod and as if he was growing sleepy.
With his eyes half-open, he looked like a corpse to her...
"Who knows?!" she asked abruptly, almost angrily.
"It may be me, or you, or no one..." Spiridon shook his head and took another sip. He always drank in small sips, just licked the glass. This habit of his had always infuriated her. She took a loud swig. Her fingers were still caressing the armchair passionately and she seemed to be writhing with pleasure... Or perhaps writhing from confusion before the secret? Who knows, who...
"We have been all sorts of things, haven't we?" she exclaimed and started laughing.
"Possibly, yes..." He kept shaking his head.
"Do it yourself! Answer the question yourself!" She laughed again. Her laughter sounded rude, somehow unnatural, sardonic, cynical... Offensive. She shuddered with a surge of revulsion, but she did not notice it.
Her look wound around the lamp's flame, dipped into it, kissed it and died - like our passions, he sighed. She was able to have sex with everything on earth, even with the sky, the stars, the air...
"Something nice can happen on the first day of the New Year, can't it?" she was laughing aloud now. Her laughter poured in a gracious way, as if it were the sound of a violin seductively, as it had been once when she used to fall into his arms and drag him down its abyss.
"You? What?" There was no alarm in his voice. The rhythm of anxiety started playing on his left cheek.
"I want..." she started eagerly then stopped. She stopped and waited cunningly.
He kept silent; he knew her tricks only too well. He fell into her traps only when he wanted it so.
She looked at him disappointed. He showed no signs of waiting for anything to happen; only his left cheek was having a slight twitch. A sign it was, though.
"I want to confess something to you," she said and stopped again. She was challenging him, playing with him, like the old days.
"You may want to confess everything, ah?" he smiled and patted Bella, the German shepherd, which stood guard next to him, even started to snarl at an invisible enemy. Peter, the tomcat, gave a mew in his sleep. Or he might have laughed, instead?
"Would you like it?" Gloria was looking at him with dreamy eyes.
"Alright", he agreed momentarily; Bella gently pressed to his leg, licked his hand. Encouragingly, perhaps.
"I want to say everything about Vladimir... Yes, about Vladimir! Now that he's dead, I think I can, I must..."
Silence fell suddenly, and in it, the crackling of the logs was deafening. Peter, the tomcat, turned the yellow streams of his eyes to the fire, wagged his tail, tapped the floor with it without moving a bit. As if he was expecting something to happen, but what exactly?
He sighed and put his hand into the pocket of his jacket.
She flinched - he kept there his gun, would he shoot me, she asked herself horrified. If he does, it means he still loves me. She froze in expectation.
He put out the case with his glasses. He put them on them slowly and turned towards her.
"You are lying to me!" her response was so violent that the German shepherd got startled and snarled at her.
"I know and I can prove it. Yes", with his glasses on he looked like a university professor, but, in fact, he was just another looser and a blockhead, she gritted her teeth.
"Prove it!" her body was taut like a pulled string.
"Alright! Alright!" he nodded kindly and with eyes dappled with jocular flames, he said: "You used to meet in Lily's apartment, didn't you? Shall I go on?"
"I don't think its necessary..."
"So, you don't think it is time for us to be honest with each other, I am right?"
There was malice in her words. Or, perhaps, they were a sign of helplessness? Horror of what might be in store? Or, the surprise made her cantankerous? As it sometimes made her irresistible...
"Why?" he raised his eyebrows in surprise. That was the indisputable sign that he was interested. His next phase was always anger, swallowed with a great effort. He did not carry on. He chose to have a sip.
"So...you!" she pointed an accusatory finger at him. Then rose from the chair and froze. Half-upright, she resembled a marble statue. So beautiful, no matter how old she was. Or, magnificent in her anger only, because it is the only emotion that makes people real, isn't it? Perhaps, yes, he would answer in this way, if he talked to her; he did it only to tease her, so that she should get angry, because she was so beautiful then. A little secret, he was not going to share with her ever, or who knows, some day, perhaps...
"Me," he replied calmly and waved majestically with his hand.
Did he show indifference? Or forgiveness? Or...? Still, he carried on talking quite unexpectedly: "You. Vladimir. The child. So what?"
She sank helplessly in the armchair. A strange feeling of flight overwhelmed her. She was falling. She managed to utter, though:
"Why have you kept silent?" and without waiting for his reply, shot out her questions: "How did you find out? When? Who told you?"
"A man always finds out when another man invades his wife's life," he said tiredly, with undisguised boredom.
"You spied on us, admit it!" she was shivering with anger.
"Yes and no. I knew all along. It takes no more than a mere observation for a man to know everything about you. Spying is not necessary. Though, observation is a kind of spying too. To observe a person, when he does not suspect it is a deeply immoral and blameworthy act. The face, darling, is the worst traitor. The smile, too. The eyes. The lips. The kiss. The skin. The body." he spread his arms and said ironically: "And other things, too... Is there any need to continue? Everything is a telltale sign. It cries out the secrets for those who have the ears to hear it, the eyes to see it."
"Why didn't you tell me that you knew it?" she asked. It was not until now that she had begun to understand... He shriveled up, shrank and laughed quietly: "What should I have told you? Should I have asked you if you loved him? Should I have asked you that?" He saw that she nodded and smiled contemptuously: "Well, it would have been foolish of me! After all, it was your own business!"
"What about the child?! How did you accept it?" she only now realized the horror that seized her.
"With love. I accepted it with love. What has the child got to do with it?" He shot a glance at her through his glasses and looked down.
Bella, the German shepherd, was standing between them. She snarled now at one, now at the other. As if she noticed some growing, incoming evil and was announcing that she would oppose it with all her mighty body.
"And you didn't give a clue to Vladimir, or to me or our son..." It was now that she realized what he meant and she exclaimed: "What sort of man are you? Made of stone?" She was overwhelmed with confusion and ran her trembling fingers along her hair, then along her knees...
"What should I have done, in your opinion?"
She gave a sob. Through tears she whispered, "I don't know. But you are a monster!"
"Perhaps, yes, you can never say that you know thyself? I wouldn't be so categorical in my opinion about you..."
"Yes!" she cried out: "You would be calculating, as you have been doing all your life!" That was a hint about his job, about the inevitable deals with his conscience. But he had always admitted it...
"The heaviest sentences are the ones that are not pronounced," he said cruelly and continued with an even voice: "I've had my share of suffering."
"So what? Look at him - the hero! The hero of the century! The hero who is suffering, look at him! I am the whore, who brazenly cheats on him, is that it? Tell me!" She was sobbing heavily. She shrank, aware of her helplessness.
There was something more, but what was it? Perhaps, yes, it was some voice whispering to her, a voice all too familiar. His voice! How's that?
"You said that - I have always preferred to remain silent." He stood up. Bella faltered, then followed him, her muzzle turned towards his wife. Peter, the tomcat, suddenly jumped at the dog and hit her. She did not respond. The tomcat mewed.
She heard the entrance door creak.
When Spiridon and the dog came back, covered in snow, she was still standing with her hands pressed to her face.
"It's five minutes until the New Year comes in," he said. He poured champagne into their glasses.
She watched him through her fingers. Suddenly she realized that it was him that she had loved all down the years. Everything else had been a lie, a mistake, a substitution...
In the dying minutes of the old year she got to the bottom of the ever escaping meaning of life - we keep running after lies, we love them, we give birth to their children while the truth has always been very near.
She stretched both hands to him - hands, thinned out from old age - then sank into his embrace and started laughing.
Or started crying, perhaps?
While he was embracing her, Spiridon was thinking that he had every reason not to tell her the whole truth. He could have told her that Vladimir had reported against them to the authorities, and now, after the political changes, Spiridon had read in the archives all this and almost gone mad with shock. Because it all showed how wrong she was about that man, who was the genetic father of Spiridon's son. If his son learned the truth, he would no doubt feel disgusted and repulsed, because he would compare them - his true father and his false father and would pass his judgment. No doubt, he would say that his mother had been mistaken.
He could have told her all this but he chose to remain silent, to keep the suffering within, to press it closely to himself.
Perhaps, there will come a time when he will give his hand to the man who bears his name and then he will tell him.
Now, he smiled only and had a drink from the glass of wine. The years were howling outside like raging wolves, like lovers...