Miroslav Penkov’s debut collection, East of the West, was widely lauded as “a collection of triumphs” (Newsday), and so it is with great pleasure that we are able to share the opening chapter of his enormously charming, slyly brilliant debut novel, Stork Mountain.
SOMEONE WAS BEATING THE DOOR of the station and I heard a man cry out, “Let us in, you donkeys. The storm’s on my tail and inching closer.” But I hadn’t slept in thirty hours and maybe I was dreaming of voices. Or maybe I didn’t want to get up, snug as I was on the floor in the corner. The handful of peasants around me began to stir, uneasy. The stench of wet wool, of sweat and tobacco, rose like mist from their ancient bodies and the waiting room fogged up. I knew they expected me, the young boy, to wrestle the door open, to let into safety whoever was out there. So I pretended that I was sleeping.
I had arrived on a bus from Sofia early that morning, a four-hour wobble east to the middle of nowhere. “You wait here,” the driver had told me, “for the bus to Klisura. It comes around noon. A blue bus. With a big sign. To Klisura. Will you be able to read it?” He’d spoken to me the way people speak to foreigners, drunks, or the dim-witted. I’d smiled and nodded and wondered which of the three he’d thought I was.
Outside, the fist kept pounding. A growing wind whipped the windows and their glass creaked on the verge of breaking. Through the veil of my eyelashes, I spied an old woman make for the door, limping. An old man got up to help her. Next thing I knew, wind was roaring around us, much too scorching for the middle of April.
When they shut the door again I heard the man who’d been banging, now on the inside. “Ashkolsun, Grandma.” Then I saw him, slapping sand off his tracksuit trousers, off his brown leather jacket. He kissed the old woman’s forehead and, without as much as a glance at the people around him, marched to one end of the station, where old benches had been piled up, all the way to the ceiling.
“You come here and help me,” he called, still not turning.
By the door there now stood a young woman. A girl really, in blue shalwars and a silk dress; it seemed like she’d sprung out from the nothing. She was untying her headscarf, white with roses imprinted on it, but when the man called, she rushed to aid him. They lugged the bench together, a good five, six meters.
“And my demijohn?” he said. “Did you forget it?” Once more the girl sprinted back to the exit, her face as red as the roses, her bare feet kicking up the sand she’d tracked in.
At once I felt lighter. The eyes of the peasants, which had crushed me for hours, had now latched on to the couple. I didn’t blame them. I too wanted to know what the girl was doing, but I was afraid her man would catch me staring. So I moved to the window to watch her reflection in secret.
And at the window, I saw the storm approaching. There was a road outside the station, fissured by heat, frost, and hail, and a vast, barren field beyond it. Two rows of wind turbines stretched on the horizon, and scattered across the field I counted a dozen small mounds. Thracian tombs; I knew that much. In the distance, beyond the mounds and the turbines, a wall of red sand was pouring from the sky, violent, muddy, and racing in our direction.
“Simooms,” said a voice beside me. “Scoop up sand from the Saharan desert. Bring it here, across two thousand kilometers.”
A plume of smoke hit the glass on the inside and bounced back to choke me. When the smoke settled, I saw an old man reflected, ghostly transparent, except for his thick mustache the color of rusted metal.
“My missus makes me dye it,” he said, smoothing the hairs and nodding at a withered woman on one of the benches. Dressed in a black skirt, black apron, black headscarf, she resembled a shadow. The old man turned his gaze to the girl in the corner. “I reckon if I wasn’t married, I’d steal her.” And he coughed a long time in place of laughter.
I had the urge to tell him there were no simooms in Bulgaria, never had been. But who was I to correct him? Maybe even the climate had changed in my absence. Were we in danger? Should I step away from the window? But asking him required I speak the language I hadn’t used in so many years, and this scared me far more than a sandstorm.
I crawled back to my corner. On her bench, the girl was eating an apple. Her man was asleep, his arms wrapped around a wicker demijohn, the cigarette in his mouth still burning. I allowed myself to stare more boldly until at last the girl caught me. She bit hard into the apple, smiled, and began chewing, her lips aglow with sweet juice. Something slammed the side of the station, a deafening shatter.
“There, there,” I heard Red Mustache saying. He’d returned to his wife, who now rocked back and forth in her seat, in fear.
“Vah, vah,” she answered. Like a soft song, “Vah, vah.”
And out of nowhere, she gave out a shrill cry.
“Welcome, welcome, Saint Kosta.” Her rocking sped up and she crossed herself time and again with zeal. One by one the few women beside her stood up and hurried to the other side of the station. One by one they crouched on the floor and covered their faces with their motley headscarves. The girl in the corner perked up, threw away the apple, and wiped her palms in her shalwars.
“Don’t be afraid, my dears,” the woman in black told them. “It’s just Saint Kosta arriving. And his good mother coming behind him.” Her husband kept speaking, but again she wouldn’t listen. In vain she tried to reach her rubber galoshes, in vain to unhook them. Her undone scarf flapped like the wings of a black bird. Her cheeks had turned to red apples, and when she looked at me, though just for a moment, she appeared as youthful as the girl in the corner.
“Don’t be afraid,” she told me kindly. She wiped her tears with the scarf and tied it.
Red Mustache lowered himself on the ground before her, unhooked her galoshes, and began to massage her feet, swollen and pinkish.
“There, there,” he told her.
“Vah, vah,” she whispered, and the tears rolled on.
It grew dark around us. The storm had swallowed the station. Fists of wind slammed it and tiles flew off the roof with a terrible clatter. Endless grains hammered the windows, and I thought any minute the glass would shatter. And through all this, I could see the sun blazing, red in the red mist—simoom, from the Saharan desert.
“That’s right, my sweet dove,” croaked the old woman. “Fear nothing. It’s only Saint Kosta.” But it wasn’t to me she was speaking.
The girl had gone to the window. Fearless, reckless, she’d glued her palms to the glass as if she meant to pass through it. Her body shivered and I could see her face reflected, her wet lips twisting in a thin smile. The storm that had made me crouch on the ground in fear beckoned her to come closer.
An underground thump shook the station. The glass rippled like water and then burst into pieces.
I managed to shut my eyes before the sand lashed me. My lungs filled up with fire and I felt as if I were drowning. Wind thrashed; the women were crying and more glass was breaking around us. Next, somebody’s hand was pulling me deeper into the station.
“Grab a bench,” someone shouted. “Turn it over.” We were pulling benches from the tall pile, me and the peasants, building a shelter and crouching behind it.
“I told you, my dears,” the old woman kept croaking. “No need to fear.”
I’m not sure how long we sat this way, our bodies pressed one against the other, like soldiers in a trench before battle. Sand whirlpooled around us and I had to keep my eyes shut tightly, but after a while I could breathe better and the wind no longer howled with the same force.
When someone splashed my face I jumped, startled. Red wine, warm and stinging.
“Wash the sand off,” said the man with the leather jacket. He carried his demijohn along the line and poured wine on people’s faces. His girl was sitting beside me, her hair spilling free over her shoulders, her face black with the streaming wine and the sand, which had turned muddy. Mud and wine trickled on the floor and the sour smell of grapes mixed with the dust of the sandstorm.
I wanted to ask the girl how she was feeling. Had the glass cut her? But once more I was ashamed of speaking. Besides, she kept her eyes closed, as before, smiling. I too closed mine and tried to steady my breathing. The wine was hot on my tongue and salty; the sand scraped my throat each time I swallowed.
“Wake up, boy. Take this.” Someone shoved in my hand a piece of bread, a chunk of white cheese. Red Mustache had opened his wife’s basket and was passing food to the peasants. She didn’t seem to mind it, herself sucking a morsel. I wasn’t that hungry, but it felt good to be eating, each bite pushing away the darkness. And so we ate, hidden behind the benches, fearful and relieved and excited. An eerie silence had filled the station, and when someone hiccupped, a woman burst out laughing. In no time we were all gasping, not in the least sure what was so funny. Only the girl by my side kept quiet. Her eyes swam under their closed lids, her face now entirely drained of color.
I turned to see her better and it was then that I touched the blood pooling between us. The wine had obscured it—black blood, thick and sticky, oozing through the sleeve of her silk dress.
“Are you touching my wife?” her husband barked, and jumped up, ready to fight me.
“She’s cut,” I mumbled. “Look, she’s bleeding.” My tongue felt limp, unresponsive, but I kept babbling until the man understood me. He pulled back the sleeve and we saw the girl’s wrist, slashed open.
“Sweet mother,” the man said, “I feel dizzy.” He stumbled back and collapsed against the wall of the station. The peasants flocked around the girl like vultures. One slapped her face; another told her to wake up. Her eyes flicked open—as black and shiny as the blood flowing—and she gave us a sweet smile.
“I feel like a feather.”
“We need to stop the bleeding,” I heard myself saying. I pulled off the headscarf and wrapped it around the girl’s wrist, then showed an old man where to press it, not to let go. In a daze I sprinted to retrieve my backpack, sand still lashing through the broken windows, though no longer as harshly.
“Are you a doctor?” someone asked, so I said no, I wasn’t. But I carried a first aid kit, knew how to dress wounds. I kept babbling, drunk on the sound of my language or on the adrenaline maybe.
Once I’d tied the makeshift bandage the girl’s eyes opened.
“I could do with some water.”
I brought my bottle to her lips and she drank a few small sips.
“Stay away from my wife, you hear me?” Her husband had sprung up to his feet once more, but when he saw the blood pool his face twisted and he sat back down.
“Mouse heart,” a woman’s voice whispered, and the peasants burst out laughing. Even the girl giggled.
“What kind of a man fears blood?” someone mumbled.
“How does he slay kurban, then?”
The man rose again with great effort. He pushed through the crowd, scooped his wife up, and, leaving a trail of bloody steps in the sand, carried her to the other side of the station. He laid her down on the floor and in his spite began to remove her bandage.
“Another man touching my wife,” he said, fuming. “And you fools are laughing.” In the end he threw away the bandage and wrapped the scarf around his wife’s wrist.
“Mouse heart, am I?”
I looked about. But the others only shrugged and crept back to the benches. Even Red Mustache didn’t seem too bothered.
For some time I watched the blood-soaked bandage on the floor, where it gathered black sand. I watched the man pressing his wife’s wound, his eyes fixed on the stripped beams of the ceiling. Then I picked up my backpack and hurried to the most distant corner.
Outside, sand hung in midair like a dry mist, but the worst of the storm had passed us. I leaned my head against the wall, closed my eyes, and listened. The sand whooshing, whispering, drumming against the roof and the empty panes of the windows. What in the world was I doing back in this country, chasing after a man I hadn’t seen in fifteen years? A man I hadn’t spoken to in the last three. My flesh and blood. My childhood hero. A man who’d vanished without a word even.
I pulled out the tourist map I’d bought in Sofia that morning and spread it before me. There, in the southeast corner of Bulgaria, spilled the Strandja Mountains. There was the delta of the Veleka River, the coast of the Black Sea. There loomed Turkey and the border, like the bottom of a maiden’s skirt, a capricious maiden who teases her suitors, lifts the hem to show one of them her ankle, then hides it and shows it to another—Greece, Bulgaria, then Turkey, like this for thirteen hundred years. And there on the hem, in the hills of the Strandja, written on the map in a font different from that of all other villages around it, was nestled Klisura. It was to Klisura I was now headed. It was in Klisura that my grandfather was hiding.
I folded up the map and returned it to my backpack. Behind the barricade the woman in black was calm now. Her husband had treated a few other men to his tobacco, and thin strings of smoke rose to the ceiling. The man in the leather jacket kept pressing his wife’s wrist, his face paler than hers, which was now flushed and sweaty. She spoke to him sweetly, her voice small, distant, her head lolled on his shoulder. And twenty miles to the south, in Klisura, at this very moment, my grandfather ate lunch or pulled a bucket from the well, read a book or readied himself for his afternoon nap. Not suspecting that his grandson was coming near. To call him to account for his hurtful disappearance? I only wished my reasons for returning were this noble and this pure.
Miroslav Penkov was born in 1982 in Bulgaria. He moved to America in 2001 and received an MFA in creative writing at the University of Arkansas. His stories have won the BBC International Short Story Award 2012 and The Southern Review’s Eudora Welty Prize and have appeared in A Public Space, Granta, One Story, The Best American Short Stories 2008, The PEN / O. Henry Prize Stories 2012, and The Best American Nonrequired Reading 2013. Published in over a dozen countries, East of the West was a finalist for the 2012 William Saroyan International Prize for Writing and the Steven Turner Award for First Fiction by the Texas Institute of Letters. In 2014-15 he was the literature protégé in the Rolex Mentor and Protégé Arts Initiative, working with mentor Michael Ondaatje. Penkov teaches creative writing at the University of North Texas, where he is editor-in-chief of the American Literary Review.
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