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October 3, 2008 by · 1 comment

Kristin Dimitrova

Photo: Andrew Turner

(The following is an excerpt from a novel)

(Some remarks, inconsiderable events and traits of the characters are stolen from reality, but the novel is entirely fictional. A myth, however, is true because of the bigger story it relates, and not because of the costumes the characters wear at every appearance.)

…Sabazius – the foreigner, the liberator, the blood-thirsty fiend, the drunkard, the liar, the debaucher, the ascetic, the handsome one, the mad and unacknowledged god – came late on Olympus, although he was more ancient than the ancient ones. Son of Zeus and mortal Semele, he had a hard time proving himself worthy of the pantheon of the superhumans. And he did it in an inhuman way.

Sabazius, also known as Dionysus, Bacchus or Zagreus, was a Thracian. He was a foreigner on Olympus and this was obvious for another reason as well. The Greek gods could do anything but die. Sabazius, however, knew death. That is why they called him also “Dithyrambos”, meaning “he of the double door”, “Eleutherios” – “the liberator” and “the twice-born”, because he was the only one who had managed to return from the dead.

The truth is that before him Osiris, the Egyptian, was torn to pieces by his enemy Seth and fallen captive to death. Then, after Isis put him together piece by piece, he was reborn to triumph. Many assert that in Thrace he was known as Sabazius. If this is true, it would turn out that the son of mortal Semele was older than his father Zeus. There is another Thracian who claims Osiris’s legacy, and perhaps that is why he rarely shares the same myth with Sabazius. For this would be the same as putting a man and his shadow together and then wondering who is who.

Sabazius – the god of happiness, pain and absurdity – is also the patron of drama, agriculture and civilization. His symbols are the ivy, leopard, wine, serpent, bull and the phallus. And if any of these pop up in conversations or real events, it means that Sabazius is not far behind…


I didn’t expect to see him again. I thought he was dead but perhaps that suited me better. The truth is I went to him myself.

He had chosen an old house in downtown Sofia for an office. As I walked to the place and counted the numbers, I already knew which house that might be. When I was a small boy, I used to pass by it regularly on my way to my music classes. An old woman with long fingernails was continually standing at the ground-floor window, keeping record of those who crossed the barrier of her gaze. Her presence was so inevitable that for me the house, the woman and the stench that radiated from her window melted in a trinity of body, spirit and soul. In the hot summer days the smell of hair, unwashed for years, and wetted clothes, unchanged since the last time a caring neighbour donated her old rags, mixed with the deep odour of cellar coming from inside the rotten walls.

On seeing me, she would catch me her eyes’ hooks and start jabbering about receptions with ambassadors and stuff like that. She was eager to tell everybody the stories of her wild past and croon moldy tunes. No one really stopped to listen, except maybe me. She somehow paralyzed me. The house was overgrown with ivy, and if at places the falling plaster wasn’t visible, that was because the green leaves crept like a skin disease all over the walls and hung in garlands down the façade. Around the old lady’s window they wound a sort of a lifelong wreath.

The violin lessons lasted until my high-school graduation, so I witnessed the slow disintegration of the old woman. Come to think of it now, I wasn’t quite sure of her age. White locks of hair dangled over her tight skin and everything blended in the common grey background of filth. Her stories gradually fell into pieces which got jumbled up, forming strange new combinations, like centaurs, mermaids or fauns.
She said she went on a journey with her husband, then somehow it was her lover who left her, then she got even with her best friend for having betrayed her in a difficult moment, but she never really managed to punish her… I listened as she jumped from one layer of time to another, tried to reconstruct what really happened, and was always late for my violin lessons.

The old tunes remained in her head long after everything else there was gone. During the last months I saw her, she could only sing. That was right after the political changes. People gathered in crowds, chanting slogans. They would glue posters at night and bash each other’s heads with the flagpoles in the narrow streets after the demonstrations.

One autumn evening, on my way back from my violin lesson at around seven o’clock, I heard the blunt sound of blows and a kind of stifled bellowing by the old woman’s house. Two men were kicking a third one who was down on the ground. Another one of the attackers had stepped on his chest to prevent him from running away. They all panted as if they were in the gym, exercising. Strangely enough, nobody made much noise despite their energetic movements – the man they were thrashing kept his voice down too. I hid behind a tree, hypnotized by their inky silhouettes.

My heart, which had never been particularly healthy, began to swallow my blood in deep gulps, but in those days I took no medication, so I couldn’t do anything about it. Suddenly the ground-floor window right above the men opened and they froze. The old lady leaned over them and raised her finger as if she was about to say something very important.

“My my my Delilah” she sang in a trembling soprano.

This seemed to do it because they ran away. The roughed-up guy crawled around for some time, feeling the pavement. Finally he managed to get up. He staggered along, supporting himself against the walls of the buildings. He threw up by a tree. Although I couldn’t get a clear view of him through the darkness, he looked very young to me. I had no idea what he had done to attract the anger of those men. There were no election posters or glue anywhere near him. Leaning on elbows, the old woman remained at the window.

Two days later the bloody mark left by the boy’s palm was still on the discoloured plaster of the house. The stain was brown and upcurved like a fat peapod. It struck me that there was something about blood that made you notice it. It glowed. Dried blood was different than any other ex-red colour, and you didn’t want to touch it. I stepped close and touched it.

After the fight my life went on unchanged because my mother wouldn’t hear of stopping my classes. I already knew that every wish she imposed upon me with iron fist actually came from my father. I was ashamed to admit I had been frightened by something I watched from behind a tree, so I told them that two men with vague faces had attacked me with a knife. My mother shouted “When?”, “Where?”, “How?”, while my father declared that if his word still meant something in this screwed-up country, he would arrange for his office driver to pick me up from my lessons.

Ever since democracy came, he had been compelled to share his driver with some other literary giants of similar calibre who used to hang about in the cultural vanguard of the former elite, but his threat worked just as well. Scared of being driven around in my father’s Mercedes like a luxurious prisoner of war, I blurted out I made it all up to get rid of the lessons. So my negotiation efforts turned back to square one.

I continued to visit Mr. Linus, who waited for me with a loaded violin in hand and the ceremonial courtesy of a maître d’. To my parents he was my road to “spirituality”, to him I was the golden hen that laid the foreign currency eggs of my eminent family, and to myself I was the inconspicuous go-between for the two parties. Not that anyone at home expected me to become a musician. With the help of examples and appropriate remarks I was encouraged to find a “serious profession”, to become something like a diplomat, judge, or economist.

Apparently neither mom, nor dad gave me too much credit with the notes. Or maybe they just knew that art brought no reliable income any more. I never really found out what my father thought about art. Probably nothing at all. He just made it and utilized it. As for me, the things I did had already started to pull me apart in all directions. I learned a “serious profession”, though not of the kind they wanted, and stuck to music in order to spite them. Music was turning into an obstacle, so I began to love it.

Sometimes it seems to me that trying to oppose my father I always did exactly what he wanted me to do. This gives me the creeps.

After the incident, however, I was afraid to walk the streets again. Not that I expected anyone to attack me – there weren’t many candidates to snatch away my violin. Besides, back in those days I would have readily surrendered it. But the pavements I thought I knew down to the very last tile had revealed a different face to me. The wind was sweeping the dry leaves in heaps that nobody bothered to clear. The ivy covering the house still clung to life, but had acquired the colour of mature wine.

About two weeks after the incident, while I was walking knee-deep through the heaps of dead leaves, I kicked something soft. It slipped under a parked car. Kneeling, I pulled it out. It was a wad of dollars, rolled up and bound with a rubber band. My father was the only one in our family who had dollars because he was “a writer of national significance”. But he kept them in his bank account and made me lick his ass for each pair of blue jeans.

I don’t know why the house I was going to stirred all these memories of events that had happened nearly fifteen years earlier, but when I’m tense my mind refuses to concentrate on urgent problems. The man I was about to visit, as far as I knew him, had no reason to invite me. I should have focused upon this. But then, I didn’t really know him.

I checked up the address again to make sure I was at the right place, because the renovated building was screaming “Look at me!” like a face after plastic surgery. A golden-orange Lotus Elise was parked aslant in front of the doorway. Its black trimmings gave it the look of a napping leopard. I didn’t really expect to see the old woman with the long fingernails, but I needed some time to find my bearings in the changed scenery. The house – gutted out, refurnished and glittering in dark ruby – expected its new life. And somewhere inside it Sabazius was expecting me.

Brass plates with company names in different alphabets were attached to the wall, one under the other. “Wheat Ear LTD”, “Trance&Vision”, “NewsHolding” and a tour operator named “Odysseus” – probably one or two offices on a floor. All I expected to see was his name on the entrance door. I had to guess which bell button to press and, to make it worse, the bells had no tags.

“Can I help you?” asked a tall blond man with an SS haircut, who opened the door before I had touched a button. He was dressed up in a brown caftan which covered him like a chocolate glaze but didn’t sweeten up his face. While his words were offering help, his body was blocking my way.

“I’m looking for Sabazius.”
“Is he expecting you?”
“He is my uncle.”

The Nazi consulted his cell phone and just moved out of the way.

An air conditioner stirred the atmosphere in the hall. A staircase with wrought iron handrails spiralled over my head. The walls were bright and white all over, like everything that had never been used. I didn’t know where I was going, so I just started to climb up. There was a couch with lion-paw legs in Louis-the-something style on the second floor. A man in a yellowish suit was lying on it, lightly snoring with his mouth open. His jacket was crumpled under his head and the upper button of his pants was undone. He seemed familiar to me, especially his goatie which at the moment was pointing up to the ceiling. A door opened on the top floor and a slim silhouette, white shirt hanging out of his trousers, appeared against its rectangular background.

“What took you so long?”
His curly hair hung around his face in elastic springs. It seemed to me, though I couldn’t be sure, that the silhouette was waiting for me with a smile. I climbed the last stretch of stairs to him. He was smiling. And then I saw the thing that had always made me shudder at the sight of Sabazius. One of his eyes was dark and the other was blue.

I offered my hand, but he embraced me. Muscles contracted under his loose shirt like the coils of a boa constrictor. Sabazius adjusted my face to the light coming from the door, as if he was about to paint my portrait, and stepped back to take a better look.

“You have grown up!” His voice was thin and very quiet.
“I haven’t heard this for a long while. Besides, you are only five years older.”
As a rule, my kinship with Sabazius wasn’t mentioned much in our family, but during the last five minutes it was reminded to me in all possible ways. He started nodding and showed me into the office. I hesitated.

“There is a man lying on the couch downstairs. Is he all right?”
“Oh, this must be Silenus. He went a bit far last night. A bit too far, actually. Has he thrown up?
“I don’t think so. Is this Silenus, the Member of Parliament?”

The answer seemed so obvious for Sabazius that he didn’t bother to give it. His office appeared to be empty, with a few exceptions. Its centre was occupied by a huge desk, supporting the weight a few bottles of different wines and a notebook turned on. Three marble statues stood by the wall. Their faces – one of them noseless – were frozen in painful perfection. Their stone bodies looked like straining against a heavy wind and their muscles bulged out with such suppleness that I expected to find them warm to the touch. The first statue lacked hands, the second had no legs, and the third had lost everything but its torso.

Looking at them, I realized we were not alone. By the empty fireplace on the opposite wall there stood a dark-haired woman who hadn’t uttered a word so far. Her eyes were rimmed by thick black eyelashes. They reminded me of those Christmas wreaths which had silver bells hanging in the middle. She watched me unblinkingly, as though she was the only one of us who had the exclusive right to observe the other. Her hair fell in waves about her pale face, and a necklace with gems, as clear as crocodile tears, surrounded her neck. I reached out to touch one of the statues, but she practically materialized between me and them. I hadn’t seen such lightning speed even among museum guards.
“Persephone, take it easy, please, he is family.”

She went behind his back and started to massage him. Sabazius relaxed in her hands like a cat. Persephone, not taking her eyes off me, remarked that he was the last person on earth to praise family bonds. I felt trapped in the middle of a domestic scene I wasn’t part of. I looked around to find a place to sit but Sabazius had occupied the only chair in the office. I touched the anxious face of one of the statues.

“Are they real?”
“Dug up last year. They had spent more than 2500 years under the ground. I like them very much, they calm me down. Sometimes I even get the feeling they’re trying to tell me something.
“Like what?”

“How would I know, they haven’t told me anything yet. Well, are you happy with your life?”
Sabazius seemed keen on making fast leaps between the statues and my personal life, but I wasn’t able to follow suit so soon after the unexpected renewal of our relationship. Not that I objected.
“How do you mean?”

Sabazius caught Persephone’s hands and silently bid her to stop. For an instant they exchanged glances full of trust, concern, and the loneliness of the last two survivors after a global cataclysm.
“Well, I expected you to tell me. Don’t you know what makes you happy?”

I’m sure he didn’t mean to harass me. But it felt strange to be asked by Sabazius about life. Years ago, my father drove me up to a special school with a high wire fence and an iron gate, just outside the city. I was nine then. That was where I saw Sabazius for the first time. They sent for him. He came up running in a ragged red training suit and took the greasy fillet my father gave him. I felt ashamed that my father had brought someone a piece of meat we would never eat at home. Sabazius took it and asked for cigarettes. He took them too.

“I guess I can’t complain. I am an assistant professor of philosophy. We rehearse with a band in the evenings. The Argonauts is the name, our second name in fact. The first one wasn’t much of a success.”
“What was it?”
“Road Signs.”

Sabazius laughed. I pretended not to have noticed.
“We play every Friday night at the Vinyl Club, two blocks away from here. Our own compositions only. A mix between house and jazz, with ethno elements. No, it’s not what you expect. Our rhythm section is very strong. We try to create pictures of music.” I was babbling. “Come and hear us.”
“Sure. Have you got an album?”

“We have two, but it’s complicated, you know. We couldn’t reach the market, so it makes little difference whether we have albums or not. So far it boils down to what we sell in the club.”
He had come to me with two glasses of red wine and was examining them in the sunlight. He muttered to himself “This is good, very good” and apologized for making the choice instead of me. We took a sip. The wine told the story of vines, rooted in red sands beyond an incandescent sea. It was at once new, and arrogant, and deep, and reckless.

“I think I can help. A friend of mine, he is the head of Hebros TV. It’s a relatively new channel, I wonder if you’ve watched it.”
I knew it quite well. Recently the whole city woke up with the channel’s name on the billboards. I objected I didn’t need any help.
“I was saying my friend Midas needs a host for a culture talk-show.”

“I’m not a journalist. I’ve never dealt with news. And music takes up all my spare time. We are preparing for a major contest.”
“Music comes into the picture too. You were the first one I thought about, just perfect for the job. Your father’s a writer, your mother’s an artist.”
“She is a translator.”

Sabazius didn’t look like he had heard me.
“You know all these things well, it’s unavoidable. Whatever you talk to people, whoever you invite to the studio, the audience will benefit. What did your wife do?”
This made me laugh.
“How do you know I’m married?”
“It’s written on your face. What does she do?”

“She’s an actress. She’s not occupied at the moment” I said, hoping she would never find out how fast I had given away her secret.
“See? She can help you with ideas too. I intend to sell CD’s. We’ll organize concerts. It’s not true that our art doesn’t sell. Better advertising and distribution, that’s what it needs. Sorry to keep you standing, we haven’t moved in properly yet. You can sit on the desk.”

His shirt, buttoned at two or three key points, waved over the white trousers. I’ve always dreamt that somebody would invite me to do such a talk-show. But somehow I imagined the offer would come after he had listened to my recordings. Sabazius obviously had plans which were to be filled with content.
“And what is the host of this talk-show supposed to do?”

“O, come on! You’ll announce what’s new on the market, interview people. Explain to the audience what’s good, what to buy.”
We drank our wine by the window, looking at the sun-heated street. The orange car hadn’t melted down yet.
“This job is not for me. My semester starts in a month. When will I rehearse, when will I play?”
“I think you just have to see Midas. He is ambitious, always on the lookout for quality people. He said he offered good money. That is, if I find the right person.”

When I heard the salary, I swallowed, but tried not to give myself away. The sum was twice as big as everything I earned by both playing and teaching. It was hard for me to live in the periphery of my father’s bank account, and prove I was worth something too. I was already standing astride between the need to work for a sustained income and the opportunity to play the music I loved without being able to live off it. I resembled the Colossus of Rhodes without the gilding. Nevertheless, I wasn’t anxious to rush into a new profession just when our music was on the verge of breaking through.
An unexpectedly long pause followed.

“Do you know, Sabazius, some years ago I saw three men beat the head off a boy down there in the street.” I pointed to the pavement, just a step aside from the Lotus. “On the next day there was a blood stain on the wall.”
“I know” he said.
“How do you know?”
“That boy was me.”

Sabazius pulled his card out of his shirt pocket and gave it to me. I already had one. I received it the other day, along with the invitation to drop by his office. All that was written on it was his name, his cell phone number and this newly acquired address.

“By the way, which of all the firms here is yours?” I asked after turning the texture card several times without seeing any other text on it.

Sabazius smiled. His distracted manner of smiling had nothing to do with his concentrated gaze. I was constantly troubled by the feeling that he paid no attention to our conversation, and that he never missed a word at the same time. Perhaps this was due to the colour of his eyes, which under normal circumstances would have belonged to two different persons.

“None of them. All of them, actually. I have shares.”
The card which otherwise gave me no additional information, signified something beyond the printed text: the end of our meeting. I took the stairs down to the sleeping MP.

“Don’t give up on the talk-show, Orpheus!” Sabazius’s voice followed me down the stairs. I could imagine him bending over the banisters. I didn’t look up.

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