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October 11, 2008 by · No comments

Dimitar Atanasov

Photo: davidChief

In memory of my grandfather whose name I bear

“… nothing has ever seemed more intolerable to man and human society than freedom!”


“Between killing and dying there is a third thing: Life.”
Christa Wolf

A light wind was blowing.
Srebrista (1) stood on the rise from which she usually surveyed the surrounding area. The sharp outline of her body, with its head held high, its taut neck and the raised tail said more for her than the most painstaking descriptions of thoroughbred horses. She exuded an air of freedom, confidence and security. She exuded life.

Her ears pricked, she stared without a tremor. If someone could penetrate the bright velvet of her eyes, apart from his own reflection, he would see in them the towering peaks of Krustsite, and the rounded top of mount Ambaritsa; the saddle, which led on from Krustsite and which quite unexpectedly rose into mount Koupena. And beyond were nothing but white peaks and clouds, merging into one another in an endless sea, whose milky breathing was subject only to the whims of Nature.

There seemed to be no horizon. The horizon seemed to vanish somewhere down below, in the slope just before infinity began, where the Sakaritsa valley stretched majestically and lazily with its spruce forests, its deep gorges and rocky precipices.

At the foot of Koupena, horses were grazing peacefully.

Something had been worrying her of late. She would come and stand on the rise more and more often, and not just to observe; an outside observer might have thought she was meditating. And with the unerring sense of a select beast, Srebrista sensed things that were still far off in the time, which they were all rushing to keep up with, an inevitable and inexplicable doom. And that frightened her.

Surprising though it might seem, she really was meditating. But the meditation was something that simply happened, and not something that she did by an effort of will. Not simply because she could sense the call of her future offspring, which made her think of the coming days; she was bound to do that anyway for the sake of the horses whose leader she was. Srebrista was a good leader. That was why she had managed to make stallions like Sivak (2) and Ostrogrivest (3) obey her, although no stronger and tougher than they could be found.

It all seemed to her so far in the past, so many summers ago…

She had no idea that memories of her previous life lived on in her. They had started appearing recently and looked more like danger signs, heightening the sense of the imminent danger that had been overtaking her so often of late.

Perhaps that was why she kept remembering her mother.

At that time they had lived somewhere else. Then there had always been human beings around them, whom she had first heard utter her mother’’ name – Fama (4). They had also taught her her own name – Alecto (5). But nobody had called her that for a long time now. Horses didn’t need names to recognize each other. All they needed to do was to sniff each other, to touch one another, or whinny a greeting to one another. But evidently human beings had a need for names. Perhaps it was because of their stunted senses.

Despite this, Srebrista had to admit to herself that it was not unpleasant to hear her name called gently and to be treated so lovingly. Especially by the man, who had looked after them, who smelled of kindness and emanated trust. He never once felt fear, unlike the others who treated them roughly, but inside themselves were afraid. Fama never let a man like that near them.

There were many of them in the stud-farm, and they were called a stud herd. Alecto had seen her father several times. She sensed him by her mother’s behavior; she would become uneasy, shifting her weight all the time, snorting and whinnying. Kabir (6) was the name of the white stallion, who would pull and paw the ground, rearing up on his powerful rear legs, giving piercing neighs. It took several men to restrain him. They never let him alone among the herd.

It was now with wonder that Srebrista realized that the powerful male could be broken and tamed. Since when had horses had a fearful reverence for men, a fear, which made them obey their will? It had always pained her…

When she was six months old, she had changed her coat, but still remained a dark brown filly with white fetlocks. Only later would she acquire her parents’ white color. Alecto remained in the stud farm until she was one year old. She might have remained there all her life, if a misfortune hadn’t befallen Fama.

They were out grazing; sometimes they let them graze outside the farm. They were grazing a short distance away from the others. Suddenly there was the sound of twigs cracking, followed by the growing rumble of a collapsing weight. It only took a raising of a head and before the frightened eyes of the filly were the vanishing hindquarters of Fama. A moment later there was a dull thud which subsided into a dying groan. Then everything was silence.

At first Alecto didn’t realize what had happened. Only when she had realized her total helplessness did she start galloping anxiously around the dark hole, not daring to approach it. All she could do was rush off towards the farm. She quickly found her groom, who immediately noticed the filly’s unusual behavior and realized that something must have happened. Alecto took him to the scene of the accident and he looked down into the well. Down from its depths sparkled the morose, pain-filled eyes of Fama.

A muffled, helpless wheezing reached his ears. It sounded like a human sobbing. He wiped his moist eyes with his hand. Then he took his peaked cap off, and kneading it in his hands, uttered all the oaths he could think of. Someone had covered the dried-out well with planks and branches: enough to bear a man’s weight, but not enough to support a horse.

They winched Fama out. She couldn’t stand up and was breathing heavily.
So she had to be shot…

The shot again echoed through Srebrista’s mind and she started, as if someone had fired at her. There really was a boom, but it came from above, from the sky. No, it wasn’t thunder, because the rattle continued, although distantly. It was loud enough to shower the noise over the mountains and to make every stone and blade of grass tremble. She raised her head and first saw the white trail in the blue depths of the sky, and then the light-coloured shining beetle that was making it. She had seen these birds before and simply accepted them as one of those things that humans had created so that there could be no freedom anywhere, no peace, no…

She heard a neighing and spotted Siglav (7) and Ostrogrivest. They were rearing and dealing each other resounding blows with their fore hooves that were far from playful.

These two young stallions were constantly causing trouble. For a long time they had been trying to steal up on each other to do battle, but until now they had always scuffled for fun and both withdrawn simultaneously. But this time it was serious. They finally had to settle once and for all who was who in the herd. It was a long time since they had been foals. At their age Srebrista had already been here, at liberty in the mountain.

When Fama had been shot, little Alecto had felt something snap inside her, like a flash of lightning in her head. They had tied her to a nearby tree. She wasn’t a year old, but quite unruly. Something was up over there. There were a lot of people standing in a circle around the spot where her mother was. Alecto wanted to see her and started shaking her head from side to side. She heard something snap in her neck, but it didn’t matter – her halter had snapped. She made her way forward and realized it before she had even smelled her – in Fama’s eyes were two big white moons, which reflected the cold light of the day. There was a dark hole in her forehead, and her tender head was splattered with blood.

She clearly smelt the pungent scent of death.

Suddenly a light flashed in her head, shaking her, and she broke into sobs. She reared up and neighed fearfully. In the wheezing sound was the cry of a child that had just become aware of its mother’s death. She turned. The people drew aside. She trotted around the corpse, which was still warm, and with a leap galloped off into the meadow. People were calling after her to stop, but her groom told her not to. Alecto didn’t hear and didn’t see. She simply raced along, and nothing existed for her. She seemed to be chasing Fama’s spirit, which was still there, maybe lingering somewhere over the meadow before moving on to the eternal pastures of peace.

The only thing that wasn’t certain was why Fama had lost her life.

When she returned she was meek and let them tie her up again. Somebody took her aside and spoke gentle, soothing words to her. She watched as her mother’s corpse was raised on to the truck and driven off.

She felt an irresistible urge to follow. With one bound she leaped from her retainer’s grasp and galloped off. Nobody could catch her. She ran along the road, but the passing cars frightened her, and she ran off the road across the unploughed fields and the bushes, over puddles and ditches. They were going northwards, approaching the foot of the mountains. The truck turned off down a side-road. In the distance stood white buildings, which looked like those of the farm. There was also a tall chimney belching out thick black smoke. The air was filled with a persistent smell of carrion, which got stronger as they got closer.

They arrived there at nightfall.

The truck pulled up outside the gate, a man got out, the gates opened with a scraping sound and the lorry lurched inside. Alecto followed hesitantly. The unbearable stench of carrion made her nostrils quiver and she snorted in disgust. Something told her she shouldn’t be here. Someone saw her. He whistled, and people came out to drive her away. A group of men on horseback appeared ahead of her. She changed direction and headed straight for the mountains.

She was headstrong but tough. She outstripped her pursuers and reached the cover of a wood. They would have trouble finding her here. Her heart beat rapidly. She was covered in foam. She could still sense the decaying horseflesh in her nostrils. She shouldn’t stop here. She again changed direction and rushed on, choosing her route by instinct, rather than by knowledge. By now she was sure she was far enough away from that terrible place. And from the people responsible for Fama’s death.
And so she spent her first night under the open sky. She didn’t know that many such nights lay ahead.

Translated from Bulgarian by Mark Cole

Translator’s Notes:

(1) Srebrista – silver (white) mare (Translator’s Note)
(2) Sivak – gray stallion (Translator’s Note)
(3) Ostrogrivest – stallion with a wiry mane (Translator’s Note)
(4) Fama – tumult (Latin)
(5) Alecto – fury (Latin). In classical mythology, she was the daughter of the Night and the Earth, depicted with wings
(6) Kabir (Phonecian) – god of fertility, symbolizing the forces of Nature.
(7) Siglav – stallion (Translator’s Note)

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