Alexander Urumov

The Hollow

By Alexander Urumov


©Alexander Urumov 2011

От Малкото Име на Дните Жанет 45 2011


Why on earth I had to get stuck into this job, I can’t tell you. How many years this tree stump’s been standing at the other end of the yard – it’s stood there a lifetime. It’s been like this since my Dad’s time.  And Dad didn’t touch it, it didn’t get in his way none, but me – no. I’m going to pull out that stump and that’s the end of it. I dug my heels in, I admit it. Even the wife she shouts at me – Why – she cries – did I have to get lumbered with this donkey obstinacy that’s been my life’s burden. Any other time I’d have given as good as I got about obstinacy, I wouldn’t have let it go. But now I keep my trap shut, because there’s nothing I can say. – and I’m really angry, angrier than her, and that’s why I keep shtum. What can I possibly say, after the wife told me so many times: Come off it Stoicho, don’t touch that stump; no way that stump’s hurting you, Stoicho. But if I make up my mind to something – that’s it. One way or the other I go for it, whatever I’ve decided. That’s just the way it was with this stump, that’s been standing there so long. I haven’t the foggiest what kind of tree it is. I remember it was dried up and gave no fruit, so Dad cut it down one day. Didn’t matter a jot that Grandpa got angry, because when he was young he’d brought it from the north-east, as a souvenir of his youth. But Dad, he shouts: Don’t you think I’ll shed a tear – I’m not going put up with this tree, which don’t give us any fruit and to top it off casts a freezing shadow over the yard so you can’t grow anything in it. He cut it down and it went for firewood. It turned out to be a serious fuel, sort of dense, and it kept burning a long time.  At least it turned out to be of some use. But for all its good, it all went in one winter along with the rest of the firewood. That’s about the sum of what we got. And what was left of it in the end?  Just a stump and a bad memory.  That’s what the wife said to me – All that’s left from that tree is a stump and a bad memory. That’s when I got in a right mood and replied that there’d soon be no stump left. Ah but the bad memory will live on, said my wife. Wow what a contrary woman – whatever the occasion, she’s always got to come out on top. OK I tell myself – now you’ll see if the stump at least gets to stay around. I got the tools ready and one day right early in the morning I got to grips with this lump of wood.  It was Autumn, the beginning of November.  But when the sun got to warming up, a dark blue sky opened up, you’d say that Spring was coming, not winter. Even mother Nature was celebrating and rejoicing that I was tearing out this useless stump, this dried up lump of wood, wiping out the memory of that bloody fruitless tree.

I called on a neighbour to help. Sando – a really good guy, an old bachelor, always ready to help but he can’t talk. He was born that way, the poor bastard, can’t talk. Otherwise everything is as it should be, he understands everything, turns his hand to anything – really skilful and hard working. I called him over to help root out the stump. At first everything was running smooth. We cut the side roots. We levered a crow bar under it, grabbed hold and it rocked. Well that’s been pretty easy I say to Sando and he rolls his head and giggles, Then we wind a rope around it so we could heave and haul it out.  I say to myself that even if there’s a hidden root it’ll show itself, we’ll cut it and Bob’s your uncle. That’s what I thought but what follows?  This bloody minded stump, instead of us pulling it, it pulls us. Instead of the stump rising up, it takes to sinking down.  What the heck’s going on? It turns out that this tree’s got sideways roots just going out horizontal and bedded quite shallow. Strong, fat, dried up, but spreading sideways.  Just like a pine, pine trees are like that. And underneath it’s just empty space.  How did it stand up –this net of roots was like a platform over this hollow.  And this just hadn’t occurred to me. And in the second it took to realize this, as we’re hauling on the rope with the neighbour, this heavy stump decides to fall straight down the hole and drag us off with it. I realized and let go of the rope but the neighbour didn’t catch on and was still holding on and not letting go.  Before I can turn and tell him, this great lump of wood, hauls him off in front of my eyes and he disappears along with the stump. That’s how the accident happened – Sando vanished, without a trace, as if he’d plummeted into the underworld.  I only remembered his face, poor bloke, how he wanted to tell me something, but he couldn’t because his hands were all tied up in rope. Whatever he tried to say he couldn’t manage to get it out, it went down along with the rope. Forget about the rope, so what if it was new, the bloke had gone. I shouted out, the wife came out too, we joined in loud lamentations, we called the neighbours to come and help. Help but how- there was nothing to be done. No-one dared get closer, so as not to fall down the hole. And no-one knew how wide the hollow was – so that the earth beneath our feet might give way and take us down. Because this hollow turned out to be serious – a really deep thing, believe me. And you could hear something like splashing water, noise was clear. An underground river or what?  And the neighbours they were banging their heads: What happened Stoicho, mate, how did this calamity come about?  Didn’t you get a sense of something? What could I have sensed, I say, would I have gone to dig up this bloody stump that just now near swallowed me. As for Sando, I say, he’s sunk and there’s an end to it. What’s to do  I’ve no idea, I tell them. I mean it’s an enormous pit, enormous thing. And something horrible rumbled from down below…..Oh well, we remembered some time later that there’s a potholer down in the lower village, we sent off someone to call him – to go down and look for the neighbour. If only he could bring him out hale and whole, it couldn’t be right for a stump to bury a bloke. But the wife shouts at me: What did I tell you – not to touch that stump? Wow contrary woman. Hang on, I say, hold back for now at least, let’s save the neighbour, so we can discuss this later back home. And the neighbours say Let’s hope the potholer’s not in some caves, let’s hope he’s at home, so he can come get him out. As it happens we’re in luck, he is at home – and just a little later we see him appear, with lots of ropes wound round him, with a torch and with a helmet on his head. Get a grip on yourselves, he says, we’re beginning the rescue mission. He ties a rope around his waist, gives us and the neighbours the other end to hold and sets out on the descent into the hole. Little by little he sinks below and we stay on top and wait. Well there’s a whole crowd gathered. Some are worried about Sando, others are craning their necks to see what’s going on and others have just come to see the show. The news spread through the whole village and folk have swarmed. While we’re waiting to see what the potholer’s going to do they keep up a commentary. Some say that this bloke will find Sando and will get him out, it’ll be no sweat getting him out, this hole can’t be that big, no way On the other hand others are saying that on the contrary this hole could be really deep and there was no way at all for him to be found, so there was no way for him to be got out. And there were a third lot who were saying that he wouldn’t even find himself and that’s it – he’ll be lost as well and an end on it. As for me there’s a fire raging in my head – should a bloke be swallowed just on account of a bloody tree stump? An hour passed by, then another – no-one’s coming out, and the rope is staying loose and there’s no sign of either the potholer or of Sando. I want to weep. I must have made a sorry sight, because even the wife stopped nagging me about the stump. Well now at some point the rope jerked taut and we began quickly to pull it up. We pull and pull and there’s no end to this rope. At least ten metres we pulled and only then a hand appeared at the top of the hole. Wey-hey we were overjoyed, we grabbed the hand and pulled it upwards, shouting that we hoped it was the neighbour’s. If it was the neighbour’s then the other bloke would be up after him. However only the potholer emerged. He gets out at the top, brushes himself down, takes a breath and he says: He’s not down there, at least as far as I got I didn’t see him. The rescue mission hasn’t succeeded, he says gasping for breath, but we mustn’t lose our faith. Well but this hollow is so really deep, he scratches his head, there’s a whole cave down there. I don’t undertake, he says, to explore this cave which could swallow me up like nothing. It’s deep for me, he says, here you need other specialists. I’ve even lost my torch down there, he complained. Real shame as the wife’s brother sent it me from Germany just now, for my name day- it was brand new with real long life batteries.

And the potholer departed, as soon as he’d gathered up the ropes, without saying who were the specialists who could help or where we could find them. And the hole stayed open, and from down below something rumbled, you could hear some noises, we didn’t know what to do….Folk dispersed, one by one, there was nothing else they could do. Most of them consoled me that this could happen to anyone, that there was a tree stump needing lifting in every yard…Well but I reckon that after this business no-one’s going to root out old stumps. No I don’t think so. And so the wife says the same thing: After they look what happened to you, no-one’s going to dare touch, let alone dig out, old tree stumps. As for why you had to, but then you never pay attention to anything I say. I reply: Give over,  enough, enough already, wife, give over. Isn’t it enough that Sando’s lost down the hole and now you rub salt in the wound.  And she shut up.  But just temporarily, I know the woman. And that very evening she reminds me. Because you could hear some kind of noises from the hollow, some kind of roaring like from an underground river. And you couldn’t sleep, the dog started barking.  I went out into the yard – the hollow was lit up. Mother of horrors! I shout out to the wife: Wife come here, space aliens are coming.  Of course they’re coming, she answers me from the house, since you don’t listen to me, they’ll come, the aliens. Well but soon she comes out and calms me down, that there aren’t any aliens, but the potholer’s torch is switched on: Don’t you remember that he lost it down there Stoicho? Didn’t the guy say that the batteries were quite new and long life- the wife reminded me. You can’t go wrong with German technology I answered her and we went back to bed. And we slept from exhaustion and excitement….

But news about the hollow spread and television channels started to turn up and film. They wanted an interview with me, how the thing happened. I explained in detail, everything from the beginning. That evening I featured on the news and the next day I see – the neighbours in the next yard are frowning.  Why was it just me that got on TV, as though they weren’t losing sleep as well over this hollow and no-one cared about that. And let’s not forget that part of the hollow certainly passed under their yard, underground but no-one was featuring them on TV. Some folk, the neighbours hinted, are ready to dig  their yard down to hell and back for the sole and only purpose of getting on TV. Whoa, I was amazed. I tell the wife and she stood up for me: Well why don’t they uproot some old stump so they can appear on TV. These neighbours on the one hand they’re scared stiff, on the other hand they want to be famous, how’s that going to work out, the wife was in right mood. So that’s it – she can nag me about everything, but she don’t allow anyone else to do it. She’s ready to row with anyone just so it’s just her who gets to rub salt in my wound. And with this stump she’d been dealt a royal flush.

But the other day a friend turns up, he’d been to Sofia on a job.  He comes to me and tells me that he saw the neighbour Sando in Sofia, driving a black Mercedes jeep, and a really blond chick was sitting next to him on the front seat. She was a peroxide died blond, says my wife and she laughs, she could only be peroxide. Very blond was she?  She was very blond says the friend, but I can’t tell you anything else,  not to cast aspersions on the woman for no reason. Well but how did you see the neighbour in a black Mercedes jeep, I ask in shocked amazement, what with him having no driving license? Well he might not have one here, but there he did have one. He had a license and he had money, because I saw how a policeman stopped them, and he gave the cop some money and the cop let him go.  And as he let him go your neighbour wished him a pleasant day, but as he drew away your neighbour said something else about the policeman’s mother. From all which it was clear to me that he was able to talk quite freely. Well that was it.  Wow, we shared this with the wife and we were quite dumb-struck.  And now we’re wondering what to do with this hollow. I tell her that if I decide to jump in, I could come out at the other end, I could arrive in Sofia, I could even be an MP. Seeing as how this dumb neighbour gets a driving license, drives a Mercedes with a blonde in the front seat and has got money, it means I even get to be an MP. Because here I am higher up than him. However the wife she says to me: Fiddlesticks, Stoicho, don’t you dare do that, because down there isn’t the same as up here. Here you can be higher than him, but down there you could come out lower. Do you know how deep this cave is, where it’ll lead you.  Do you know what’s up and what’s down once you’re inside?  “Cos now you’ve opened up this pit no-one knows what’s up and what’s down any more. All you were supposed to do was to get rid of the stump and open up the yard, and look what’s happened.  Don’t you go and come out at the other end dumb, penniless and with no license. That way you won’t be able to come back, how would you come back with no money and speechless? Never mind that here you’ve got no money and you don’t pipe up at all, you might just as well be dumb.  But then if you stay there, who will you leave me to. There’s no-one I can leave you to, who else would take you, I think of saying this to her but I don’t. Not that it’s not true – it is, but I don’t want to rile her and I even feel sorry for the wife, I look at her, she’s standing by me. We’ve got used to one another, over so many years…That’s all very well but the pit’s still there the same. And not only is it there but you began to hear all kinds of different sounds coming out of it. Sometimes for example you could hear a sitting of the Parliament – in the greatest detail.  Sometimes there wasn’t a quorum, then it was easy and quiet, because the sitting was closed. But sometimes when they’re passing the budget or some other law, then you hear debates the whole night long.  And the dog took to howling in the yard when there were debates, turning like mad, worried. Well you can shout at the dog to keep quiet, but you can’t quarrel with Parliament. And because of these sessions we can’t sleep. And in the night  light carries on shining from down below, those German batteries can’t be quenched, they shine on, a sight to be seen. At least I came up with a trick for the dog – I put plugs in his ears and he calmed down. One or two days go by, the dog’s still calm, he sits unruffled, doesn’t react to anything.  But on the third day, I go out in the morning and I see, the dog’s disappeared. I go round everywhere, look, call – he’s not there. Anyway how’s he going to hear me with plugs in his ears?  I’m sure they’ve stolen him, I say to the wife, like he can’t hear with those plugs in his ears and they’ve stolen him. Well if he’s been stolen, OK, she answers, but if he’s fallen down the hole. Because last night I seemed to hear someone howling from inside the hole, and then you could hear a strong barking.  No that’s not it, I say, last night they voted in the budget, it’s nothing to do with our dog, calm down. A-a-ah, she caught on, So that was the what it was. And so we reassured ourselves about the dog,  that he hasn’t fallen down the hole, so he suffers, poor creature. Though if he has fallen and if it has suffered what if he’s come out the other end, he could be hired by some Sofia security firm, and be working in his special field. “Cos when he didn’t have plugs in his ears he was a good guard dog. But maybe he’s come out the other end, not as a dog but as a wolf – he could be wolfified. It wouldn’t surprise me if he’s turned into a wolf, look how many folk become were-wolves, why not a dog?  Well I got to admit I can’t say anything for certain, and this stayed this way, like a mystery. The only sure thing was that we were left with no dog and no earplugs.- a completely unguarded yard. Not to forget that no-one knew what might come out of the hole any second. Though we did have this acquaintance, a retired dentist, he comes by these days. He looks at the hollow and says: not to worry, let it be, it could close up.  Well we’re not doing anything, I reply. The condition, he says is really deep seated and on the whole it’s not good, that’s clear. But it could clear itself up, he says, such things do happen in medicine. And he went. But the situation stayed exactly as he’d said – not good – and the hollow didn’t close up.  Not only did it not close up but it seemed to sink further and get even deeper.  We wondered with the wife what to do but we couldn’t come up with anything. I mean what could we come up with given our simple wits – nothing. And as there was nothing, what else could we do…And so just as we’re racking our brains one morning we hear some kind of noise from the yard. We come out and what do we see? Crawling out of the hole with a lot of straining and puffing, it’s our neighbour Sando!  Thanks be to God, we cry, thank the lord that you’ve returned, neighbour, we were so worried about you.  And we rush to hug him, to share our joy.  But he backs off, doesn’t let us come close.  He’s in some kind of foul mood, really cross and really sulky.  It was as if a different bloke had come out, you’d have to have seen such a puzzle. What he was before he fell down the hole and what he was when he came out.  And he went home, and just stayed there all the time, he doesn’t come out. As if he’s furious that he’s come back to live again in our village. The wife says to me, he’s certainly missing the black jeep and the blond chick and I reply: Well of course it’s completely to be expected, the bloke’s bound to be sorry, who wouldn’t be sorry in his position? Even so it’s a bit too much to lock himself up at home and not go out – is it right to go to such extremes? Shame for the good bloke, he lost his goodness and helpfulness in that hole and came out a misanthrope, not a nice guy. All in all this hole’s brought a lot of trouble to the neighbourhood, and who knows how much more it’ll bring. Lots of neighbours even say how nice that old stump was, how it didn’t get in anyone’s way, quite the opposite, you could sit on top of it, like a relaxing stool. It’s even been like a witness to time passing, like a symbol of neighbourhood history, and I had to dig it out, and look – whatever  happened, happened. Other neighbours began to say that if you asked them not only the stump but the very tree should never have been touched, that it had never got in anyone’s way this tree, it even helped as a refuge for the birds, they’d made their nests there, they’d looked after their chicks. Well as no-one had asked them if this tree should be cut down, that person had to pay the price now, the neighbours concluded.  And they wouldn’t pay any attention at all to my explanations that in that tree there’d never been any bird nests, and there’d been no chicks reared in its branches. But who was going to listen…at the end of the day, from the moment that hole opened up we’ve been left with just rows, quarrels and irritation. It’s as if we’ve begun to speak different languages in the neighbourhood. Earlier we were so chummy, unified…and now everyone pulls in a different direction and there’s no understanding. Even me and the wife, we’re rowing you could say every day – still over this. And to speak plain, take a tip from me; whether a tree is crooked, or its trunk is twisted, the hole you get when you pull it out you don’t know what it is. Just so you absolutely mustn’t pull out old stumps from the yard – if you have any of course.  Best to let them stay there not to give yourself a headache. There, can you hear it?  It’s started up rumbling again.  And look it’s lit up again.  The wife was right – I got cursed with this stump and that’s that.  Everything’s a mess; we won’t be able to sleep again.

©  translated by Christopher Buxton 2013