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The Scarf by Zdravka Evtimova
(From Half Moon 2003)
Zinnias & Daisies by Charles Demuth
"Zinnias & Daisies
(Youth and Old Age)"
by Charles Demuth

He was tall, too lean, always wearing a baggy T-shirt and jeans that made him look like an old forgotten newspaper in a well-kept park. Each time, after his English lesson, he handed her a bank-note, his white almost translucent hands trembling nervously; and when she came around to give him the change he only shook his head. She assumed he was a very pampered young man. A son of rich divorced parents, who by all means had to speak English fluently, although he lacked any sense of the words and sounds of human speech.

Elena did not like him; the gloomy narrow study where she taught him grew narrower and hotter on account of his embarrassment. Emil made no progress whatsoever. His memory could not hold any linguistic knowledge, as if there were innumerable apertures in it through which all new words wriggled in slippery rivulets out of his mind, and were lost in the black chaos of ignorance. Grammatical tenses tortured him like narrow shoes that constantly pinched, and it was very hard for Elena to control her anger and not shout at the top of her voice, "Go away and never again set foot within my house! Forget there is English language in the world. You are the dullest person I have ever taught in my whole life. You not only waste my time, you prove to me I am an absolutely incompetent teacher. But that is not true! Perhaps somebody can teach a kitchen cupboard to speak English. The cupboard will start speaking the language more quickly than you will. You, however, will remain forever with the phrase 'My name is Emil.'"

But at the end of each lesson, the bank-notes he handed her in his long translucent fingers were a convincing restraining argument. She desperately needed that money. The heaps of unpaid bills in the mail box every week; her daughter's pretensions, interminable like gray water going down drains; her husband's multiple threats that he'd go to a business trip and never come back home. Her home, that volcano of squabbles, swamp of eternal penury and central heating radiators that were cold like sepulchers made her accept Emil each Thursday at 6 PM, waiting for him at the front door, a smile of rubber on her face. She adored the moments when the money passed from his hand into hers. The cold whiteness of his fingers appearing almost blue sent a caravan of icebergs to her shoulders, freezing her for a moment; but the unpleasant sensation was soon drowned in the torrent of the rustling bills.

She imagined she went to the fashion store in Victor Hugo Street and bought the most beautiful scarf. It was sad, she had been dreaming of it several years now. But the money was spent of course on the electricity bill, on the telephone bill, on the bills for central heating and water, or on foodstuffs that later she diligently turned into meals for her husband. Abject horror often seized her for she feared she could lose him. It was not so much their relationship that was obliterated almost completely in the avalanche of quarrels and constant lack of money; it was his presence that made her feel secure and think she had a close-knit family as strong as an alloy of steel. But in reality her family was not as strong as steel; it did not disintegrate only because the heaps of rust simply remained in their places pressed hard to the floor under their own weight. Her daughter suffered perennially from unrequited love, if one could name as love two or three consecutive nights with bearded blokes in her room, a place Elena painstakingly avoided. Her daughter stored various notepads that were of enormous sentimental value to her, and if Elena entered that room by accident wry faces and sore looks sprouted up in her wake. Poisonous mushrooms of long silences enveloped her home, their cold shadows reigning days and weeks on end. Her husband spoke of preparing himself for the business trip that was to liberate him forever from her. Elena went to work at her office with the same rubber smile she kept for Emil. She was quiet, kind and very convenient for "Convenient people never lose their jobs, my dearest" as her best friend advised her a long time ago. Elena relied solely on her sad salary of a translator/interpreter in a busy Greek firm because her husband's money sank into the sands of endless meetings with friends at the bar. On the days when she got paid her daughter's silences turned into joyful chirruping which grew progressively shriller with the decrease in the bank-notes in her mother's purse. So Elena expected with some trepidation 6 PM on Thursday — the moment when the stream of icebergs breaking off her private student's white skin flowed to her shoulders after she touched his cold, translucent fingers. The whisper of his money was her narcotic.

"That is for you," he told her the last time, instead of preparing her fee, and caressing her with the sounds of rustling bank-notes. His cheeks shouted with billions of red blood cells, which had rammed into his face, leaving the rest of his body utterly colorless. Elena sighed and felt the whole city rush towards her throat to bury her under the weight of its paving blocks. Emil, her dullest student, was handing her a marvelous scarf. A soft autumn was in it, quiet rain, obedient tinges of yellow leaves and a premonition of a long winter. The scarf was a magic leap in the dark of colors serene and misty like the eyes of a man in love, a work of art she had been dreaming of for years.

"Why..." Elena tried to object but the paving blocks of the city squashed the words she was about to utter.

"Take it. I know you have dreamt of it."

"How could you know that?" she asked and he started to speak faltering and balking uneasily. Each time during lessons, in between exercises with the present continuous and the present perfect tense she had always mentioned something about a scarf. He had seen her sigh after that, he added. All the sentences she used as examples were about some autumn scarf, soft and ethereal, inconspicuous and gentle like the spring that would never come back in her life.

"I cannot accept this instead of my fee," Elena said firmly. "I'd prefer if you paid me the way we had agreed."

"The scarf is...." the words again wriggled out through the invisible apertures in Emil's mind, leaving slippery ambiguous silence in the narrow study. "That is the...."

Now the meaning of the words became clearly distinct to Elena. The rustling capriccio of the bank-notes sounded in his hand and she was going to transform it into a lamb stew and salad or into several bottles of make-up for her daughter. She even forgot the scarf and enjoyed the invasion of the magnificent sounds of money.

After the lesson Elena decided to express her gratitude to her student and descended the gloomy stairs in the old block of flats, which she detested. She related the twilight in it to the cold rooms in her apartment and looked forward to returning to the kitchen where she was going to make the lamb stew. That young man had given her a present, a scarf, that closed a three-year cycle of distant dreams in her life and he deserved that little effort on her part.

Emil stopped moving and at that moment he looked even taller. His disproportionately long arms and even more disproportionately big feet made Elena steal a glimpse in silent embarrassment as if they were a product of her own creation. The light was dim and his white face that had almost no color now seemed nondescript. She was cold and that made her angry. Emil was a silent neutral shadow by her side.

"I love you," he suddenly blurted out.

She looked at him cross and stiff on the gloomy staircase not knowing how to react.

BIO: Bulgarian author Zdravka Evtimova has published three collections of short stories and two novels. Her short stories have been published in the USA, UK, Canada, Germany (where she won the special prize Lege Artist Foundation short story competition), France, Poland, Czech Republic, Russia, Croatia, Serbia, Bosnia and Macedonia.

She works as a literary translator from English and German into Bulgarian for the ministry of Culture in Bulgaria and has translated more than 20 novels by American, English, Canadian and Australian authors into Bulgarian.

At work on her PhD these on Toni Morrison's novels, Zdravka lives in Pernik, Bulgaria, with her husband, two sons and her daughter. Email: c/o Moondance.

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