Short Fiction ~ Rayna Haralambieva
First Prize, Strands International Flash Fiction Competition - 16
The father wipes off the sweat running down the back of his neck. He axes again and curses the tree, the village, his life. The mother watches from the inside, hanging quietly like a ghost by the window. Her eyes, worry-soaked, follow her husband, as he lifts a heavy arm yet once again. The chestnut sways, cracks, withholds.
The mother sinks back into the kitchen, turns on the radio to dumb the groans of the dying tree. The whistling of the pressure cooker sounds like a crying child. She boils the tomatoes because then it is easier to peel them. She turns up the volume of the radio, hums along a pointless tune. She stirs the aubergine in the frying pan – she always fears it getting stuck to the bottom. She was taught how to make imam bayildi by her mother who was taught by her mother and so on. The recipe has kept coming to life in the hands of all those women, each of them choosing to think that there’s something unique to their way of doing it. It’s the most perfect thing in their lives, one could say. They wouldn’t get it wrong even if they tried. The origins of imam bayildi are shrouded in legend. One legend has it that the imam fainted from pure bliss when his wife served him this dish. Another one claims that he fainted when his wife confessed to the amount of olive oil that had gone into the dish.
The father comes in to have a break and eat. There’s something wild in his eyes. He tells his wife that he’s going to get the damn thing down before the sun dares to set. The mother sprinkles coriander over her husband’s portion, tries to steady her shaking fingers. She fiddles with the cutlery, as he starts swallowing the patlıcan in big mouthfuls. She holds the fork, puts it down, takes it in her other hand, looks at it, puts it down. It looks like a ritual that no one but her wants to take part in. She watches a thin stream of blood-red tomato sauce run down the corner of her husband’s mouth. It lands on the white of the tablecloth and grows its stain in it. The mother slips out of her seat quietly and comes back with another plate. She puts it on the table and then starts eating. They eat like this, in silence, interrupted only by the clink of forks on plates, each one locked in the dungeons of their own thoughts. The father tells her to stop the circus show without looking at her. His voice bears the undertones of things private and unsayable. She gets up quietly and puts the third plate away.
The father goes back to grappling with the tree. The kestane ağacı refuses to move as if it knows that its roots belong in this soil. The mother, thinner than a shadow, watches from behind the curtains. She sees the muscles in his body strain, as he tries again and again. The tree refuses to go. She can’t bear this, hopes it collapses all at once.
The father swears under his breath. He could let the tree be, but now it’s too late. He has already wasted half a day and when a job needs doing, it needs doing. That’s what he knows from his father. His wife tried to remind him how the tree was there when his father was a child and how he himself has taken his first steps near its roots. She remembers seeing his moustache twitch, the way it does only when he is taken by surprise or by grief. The way it did when they lowered their son’s coffin into the ground. But then he turned his back, wheezed as if he had a blocked nose and had to force the air out. He said that the chestnuts splashed everywhere in the patio and it was too much work for her to clean it every morning. She insisted that she was fine with that, it was her morning routine and she didn’t mind. But he was already walking away and left her with her words hanging in the pressing heat of the day.
She watches him struggle against the strength of the trunk. He throws his arms up in what looks like a prayer or surrender. Then, he does something odd. He embraces the trunk and rests his body against it. It reminds her of a fairy tale that got her scared as a child. She remembered crying, huddled in her grandmother’s skirt that smelled of dust and melons.
The father thrusts the axe deeper into the tree. He is not one to give up. He starts cutting its branches which he knows is pointless, but it gives him pleasure to watch the tree lessen. He piles the branches into a heap, then starts jumping on them and shouts, just once, but there’s something in this shout that scares even himself. With its cut-off branches, the tree looks like a clumsy drawing made by a five-year old.
The mother turns the volume up, she cannot watch this anymore. There’s a sad tune on the radio, but she’d rather have it than what’s around. It sings bozuk, something broken, as if it picks the tunes running through her veins. She imagines her blood clotted by all this sadness. She goes to the oven and turns it on high. In the meantime, she washes the chestnuts she had collected from the patio in the morning. She turns them in her hands and feels the prickles nudge the worn-out skin of her palms back to life.
Rayna Haralambieva is a Bulgarian writer who writes mostly in English. Her fiction is published or forthcoming in, among others, Reflex Fiction, Litro, Flash Frontier, Bath Flash Fiction. She recently won the Gold Award in Creative Future Writers’ Award Competition. She teaches Spanish and leads creative writing workshops for children – the best storytellers of all.