The sick stallion
[ fiction - october 03 ]
At the time I will tell you about, Ilaryon had not yet become the head of the veterinarian clinic in the town of Pernik. I saw him many times going for leisurely strolls - a strapping 23-year-old with a thin moustache and black smiling eyes. Whenever he took our street and stopped by our house, he told me about what was happening in the world, along the Bulgarian Black Sea coast and in the big Bulgarian cities like Sofia. He was tall and slim and ran like a blizzard, so strong were his legs, but above all he was very good at curing sick animals.
Well, I had a daughter Sia. I gave birth to three sons before her - one after the other, like the beads of a rosary. They grew up sturdy guys, but a son is a son and I was telling you about how I wanted a daughter. When Sia came to life, my husband's eyes brimmed with tears of joy - he had set his heart so much on having a daughter.
"I wanted a daughter to shine like the sun in my house, woman," he used to tell me every time I gave birth to a son, and he gave me a kiss instead of a thank you.
My husband, who was my lord and my best friend, was a shoemaker and he had golden hands, you can take my word for it. Day in day out, he cobbled old shoes, boots, sandals or pairs of brogues for our neighbours while I took care of the children, the cows, the hens, and calves. Well, thank God, we had always had enough flour in the kneading trough and enough bread for everybody in the kitchen cupboard. It turned out the years I had waited for Sia were worth my while. She grew up very pretty - I say this not only because she was my daughter, but because I like you and, like everybody else, I have eyes in my head. Her eyebrows were thin like a tendril of a vine, her eyes were light brown, and merry, and warm.
Well, our house was not a rich place, just a roof above our heads and some windows for the light to creep into the rooms. But Sia gleamed in it like the modest moon and shone like the proud sun just as her father, my husband, my lord and my best fried, had wanted all his life.
Ilaryon, the young vet, crossed our street seven or eight times a day, but he neither courted Sia nor spoke to her. So, I was calm, I said to myself, "That boy looks all right to me and he wouldn't do my family any harm." Sia was too young, her father wouldn't let anybody utter a word about her getting married and I thought, "He's perfectly right." She was the joy of our days. That's what she was.
Well, the richest man in Pernik, whose estate covered the tract of land between two rivers and touched the Greek border to the South, was called Kosta. He had a daughter, too. Her name was Adela. I wouldn't say Adela was a bad thing to look at: she was tallish, pretty, she had been bred in a wealthy man's home, and her hands were clean and soft like the silk petticoats you could buy from the fashion store in the very center of the town. Ilaryon was of a marriageable age and was said to be looking for a bride, so it was very easy to work out that he'd choose Kosta's daughter.
No one doubted the match would be a success. Ilaryon could cure sick cattle and could talk very scientifically about nasty diseases, and he made good money, which was the greatest plus of all. Kosta, the biggest shot in town, wouldn't say no if the young vet volunteered to become his son-in-law. On the contrary, the old grouch would let every man drink a free bottle of brandy in his restaurant if that happened. It was clear, however, that Ilaryon had no inkling that he was supposed to choose a girl from Kosta's estate, and never mentioned Adela's name in public.
It was in the beginning of June that Kosta started hinting, "My stallion Thunderbolt is simply no good any more. I don't know what the matter with him is. He refuses to gallop when I ride him. If you don't believe me, ask my wife: I love Thunderbolt more than her. The only living thing I love more than my horse is my daughter Adela."
So far so good. The whole district knew well enough Thunderbolt's whims and vagaries. But the big land owner said something else as well that made young and old click their tongues in disbelief. My neighbour, the baker's wife, told me that Kosta had stressed that, "If that greenhorn Ilaryon cures my Thunderbolt, I'll let him marry Adela and I'll be as good as my word, damn it!"
I was a simple shoemaker's wife, so how could I know what was happening in the big shot's homestead? Numerous rumours had it that Kosta, the big bug, had bitten off more than he could chew... perhaps I shouldn't repeat what I'd heard because Kosta was a very vindictive fellow, but in fact I started respecting Ilaryon on account of what my neighbors said about him, although he was a tyro no older than my youngest son.
The baker's wife told me that Ilaryon went to Kosta's stables, examined the stallion carefully, slapped his back several times, nodded his head and said, "Mr Kosta, Your Thunderbolt is safe and sound. He is in exuberant health and you can see this with your own eyes. Why did you call me out?"
"He's not safe and sound at all," the big bug seethed. "Don't you see the way his head's hanging low as if the blacksmith has clobbered him on the skull with the heaviest hammer?"
"Don't say that," Ilaryon objected. "You know better than me what your servants have done to your horse."
"What?" Kosta exploded and spat on the ground several times.
"Your hostlers have been plucking wild poppies for a week now, Mr Kosta. They must've made a concoction of poppies and rum and forced Thunderbolt to drink it. That's why the poor horse reels and staggers, and I'm positive that the blacksmith hasn't clobbered him on the head with the heaviest hammer."
"Shut up!" Kosta shouted. "Who put that nonsense into your head?"
"One of your servants bragged to me the other day that you paid him ten levs for a basket of wild poppies."
The landowner gaped; his eye were as bloodshot as if somebody had attached leeches on his neck. He kept silent huffing and puffing, and snorting, and finally he said, "Therefore you don't like Adela, eh?"
"I came here to cure your horse, Mr Kosta," Ilaryon said and made a formal bow. "Your daughter is blessed with beauty and wisdom, I grant you that. But I cannot cure a healthy horse, Sir."
From that day on, whenever Kosta heard someone utter Ilaryon's name in public, he took to mumbling under his breath, his face black as a bull's horn, as if somebody had spoken about his grave. The young vet couldn't care less. He went on taking long walks along our street. When occasionally I met him, I treated him to a piece of Turkish delight, and we talked, and he didn't even glance at my daughter Sia. So I was calm. It was quite clear: he ignored the wealthy man's daughter. How could I expect he'd be interested in my small swallow of a girl?
My husband wouldn't let anybody touch our daughter.
"She's too young," he'd always grumble, making me wonder how we'd separate from her one day when she'd get married.
Ilaryon often came to my backyard to have a look at the calves, and we chatted away like old friends. I was a middle-aged woman and my neighbours said I had the gift of the gab, but I felt, in this respect Ilaryon was much more gifted than me.
The harvest began. We collected and drove home a big truck full of wheat. Life went on like a heavily-loaded caravan, a happy day now and then, followed by many hungry weeks, but we all survived, my daughter doing the housework, making the whole house merry and cheerful.
One day I noticed she stole out of the house into the corn field, all alone, padding like a weasel. "Oh, come off it, girl!" I said to myself. "What could you be looking for in the wild?" but I was too lazy to dig deep into that matter. On the following day, however, Sia again slipped out of our backyard into the same cornfield. I smelled a rat right away.
I shadowed her, and lo and behold! I saw her pluck wild poppies, clutching the half empty sack with one hand and thrusting like mad the red flowers into it with the other. I said to myself, "Let's see what she'll do next." I was a shrewd woman: how could I hold a shoemaker of a husband in my house for twenty-four years while all other ladies in town, most of them younger and prettier than me, visited his shop and he measured how long and wide their feet were to make new shoes for them? It was not easy, you can count on that.
It was 6 May the following day, the holiday of courage. My three sons went out and my husband said he'd drop in the pub for a drink. Only Sia, my daughter, hung about the sink in the kitchen washing the dishes so diligently that I again smelled a rat.
"Hey, mother, won't you visit your friend, the baker's wife? She said she's baked cookies for you."
"I sure will," I answered, but instead of going out I slipped into the wine cellar. "Let me see what's eating her," I thought. Why should she be so keen on staying at home all alone on the very Day of Courage? Soon it was no mystery to me any more. The little minx took out the wild poppies from the cupboard; put them into the biggest cauldron we had at home, poured all my husband's rum into it then kindled a big fire. The wild poppies boiled, hissed and bubbled while I sweated in the cellar the heat driving me crazy. I thought I could scream, so hot and pungent was the air. Anyway, I managed to keep my mouth shut all the while.
After an hour, my pretty daughter mixed the foul smelling concoction with water then brought Marko, our loyal donkey, and - I'd be blowed if I tell one word of a lie in this whole story - she made the poor animal drink the nasty stuff. Marko didn't want to dip his mouth in the poison, he kicked and jumped, and spat, but I knew something for sure: could the poor animal outdo my Sia in mulishness? No, not by a long shot!
She pressed Marko's head, scratched his back and gave him half a bag of sugar till she had wheedled the wretched beast into slurping the smelly slops. At first, Marko tried to turn a somersault then he threw his head back and started braying most powerfully. After a couple of minutes, however, the beast prostrated himself in the middle of the backyard, kicked feebly twice and became quiet. I was afraid our only donkey was soon to meet his maker. Sia, my only daughter, the child I loved more than everything in the world, abandoned the sick animal and went out accompanied by three or four other girls as flighty as she was, while the donkey was on his deathbed!
My husband, my lord and best friend, came home from the pub. He had chanced on his brother there, and they had shared a glass or two, so he was tipsy and merry, but when the sight of the dying Marko met his eye, his hands flew to his heart in despair. What could we do? We had no other choice and called Ilaryon, the vet, out.
There he came and entered my backyard - a real spruce fellow, his moustache shining, his eyes agleam, and my Sia dilly-dallied by the hen-coop feeding the hens. In fact, the vet didn't even notice her, if you asked me. He bent over the donkey, pushed his flaks, slapped his back, and pulled on his tail. Finally he said, "It is very serious, Sir. Your beast of burden will die."
"How come he'll die?" I asked, seething, for I knew very well what was wrong with Marko. "Yesterday the animal was as strong as the cliffs on the hill behind our house."
"Well, yes, he might have been perfectly healthy an hour ago, but there is a very dangerous disease the donkey in our area suffer from, you know," Ilaryon said. "I will try to cure him, but..." He left the words hanging in the air and lapsed into grim silence.
"Why do you say 'but'?" my husband asked.
Ilaryon didn't answer him.
My friends knew I liked to take occasional naps in the afternoon; I was a mother of four, so I hoped I'd be forgiven and nobody would call me a lazy woman. What was more, I had noticed that in the afternoon the flies were not so arrogant and didn't bite me so often. One day I was just about to doze off when I caught a glimpse of something that struck me as very peculiar: Ilaryon, the vet, gave my youngest son a bulging sack and the boy took an armful of wild poppies out of it. It was evident poor Marko would suffer from the donkey disease much longer than I could have anticipated. I was right: the following day the beast could neither eat nor bray. We gave up all hope. Our donkey was going to die, so we sent for Ilaryon.
The young vet came and said to my husband, "Well, Sir, I'll make Marko alive and kicking, but perhaps you remember what Mr Kosta offered to give me if I cured his Thunderbolt?"
"I do," my husband answered. "He offered you Adela."
"You have a daughter as well," Ilaryon ventured.
My husband hiccupped stuttered, "N-n-no!" then shouted, "Give me a knife to cut this crook's throat!" and he swore violently.
Two weeks later, our donkey recovered his health. It was at that time that Sia got engaged to Ilaryon, although she was our only daughter and was too young, and too quiet. On that day, my husband, my lord and my best friend, was stricken with grief and drank himself stone drunk. I thought it was the happiest day in my life and drank myself drunk with joy by his side.