Gencho Stoev

Extract from The Price of Gold (1964)

(Context: the setting is the church and churchyard in the village of Perushtitsa.  It is Easter Sunday and the April Uprising of Bulgarians against their Turkish overlords has provoked the terrible reaction known in history as the Balkan atrocities. As the instigator of the local action, school-master Peter Bonev lies in the church yard, the village is in flames and the villagers are about to be massacred by Turkish irregulars.  The earlier conversation is between Peter Bonev and Vranyo  Hadjivranev, the richest Bulgarian in the village.  Vranyo’s sons have been drawn into the rebellion despite their father’s close friendship with Ismael Aga.)

There were bodies too in the church yard and in the sunlight by the fence the teacher lay yellow and tubercular; looked just about alive, because his head hadn’t been cut off like the others, he hadn’t been plundered and the chain of his watch – the only one in the village, glittered underneath his unbuttoned French coat; even the handle of his pistol rested in his nerveless right hand.

“Ey! Are you happy now, School master?” Hadji-Vranyo had asked him through the smoke and the groans.  “Are you happy the village is burning?”

“I’m happy, Daddy-Pilgrim,” the teacher replied. “The very best stakes are charred at the ends – so they don’t rot when you drive them into the ground. Bulgaria needs such stakes.”

“Who’ll plant stakes in empty unpeopled land, School master?”

“The emptiest lands are those which no-one has ever died for, but the lands with the most people are those which the locals have watered with their blood. They are sacred lands.”

The words were spoken as if from an icon: wise, harsh and deaf.

“What do you know about land?  What  property have you got? You’d have no clothes on your back if it weren’t for my brother-in-law, telling you what to do…”

“True,” answered the teacher and his face was blotched, yellow, pink and black.  “I’m no rich man; I’ve got no estate.  So I seized on to the people’s cause, to lead you to freedom…”

“To lead us to the mass chopping block!”

“For someone like you, that’s an honour.  Something you couldn’t buy for a thousand gold pieces; look, through a chopping block you get to a fiddle.”

“What sort of fiddle are you gabbling about, beggar?”

“Nothing special, Daddy-Pilgrim.  A chopping block and a fiddle are made of the same stuff and they suit each other.”

“Ho yes! That’s what the people mean to you.  So there’ll be some song about you! … What a big company and they sing about Indzhe …or better the School master.”

“Listen to yourself!  They’ll never sing about me. I’m hardly a standard bearer.  Our Indzhe is galloping elsewhere…But whoever’s remembered in song, it’ll be linked with Bulgarian heroic deeds.”

Vranyo said something else to him, but he yelled:  “Shut your fucking mouth!” And it was amazing for no-one had heard him swear. And he pulled out his pistols. The old man waited without moving, but he said:  “Be grateful for your sons!” – and he stepped towards the yard outside and he turned and shouted to the living and the dead: “Brothers!  We got what we wanted.  Slavery is now over!” and he walked slowly outside and no-one there fired on him;  and those of his who could, jumped up to watch from behind sand-bags, but he shouted at the Turks as if he was at a wedding:  “Hey-hey-hey! Your time is over!  From today onwards only vengeance will grow on our lands.  Ve-e-engeance!” – and still they didn’t open fire, the fezzes stuck out amazed behind the walls; and quite a long time passed, but he approached the nearest fez and fired once: only then the gun shook like a canon and he staggered like a saint tumbled from the church wall. And he lay now still untouched.  Above him deep in thought stood the Turkish commander with his golden buttons. Someone shouted:  “Water, water!”, but the schoolmaster hadn’t mentioned water at all.