Chudomir/Чудомир Translated Short Stories

Chudomir was born in 1890 (when Bulgaria was still a Kingdom) and died in 1967 (in the People’s Republic of Bulgaria, under communism). His short stories focus on the Bulgarian villages, and the many characters in them, with all their prejudices, aspirations, petty or not so petty grievances, but also an indomitable will to live and enjoy life. You might be tricked into thinking that the political reality in which these individuals are embedded is almost a side story but, in fact, all of them are very much a product of it and their generation, and Chudomir captures very well the internal tensions of communism. I hope you will enjoy these stories as much as I do, and that I would get better at translating their unique vividness as I delve deeper into the time and its characters.   


I don’t know about your village, but ours stretches across the two banks of a river. Once, the river ran mighty and strong but now its bed is full of sand, and during the summer it dries up. Only here and there, in the forest, do small ponds remain. Along the river, up ahead, there is a path that leads to the municipal forest. At a certain point, the path splits like a pair of trousers – one leg goes towards the area for tree felling, and the other – to the protected section. At the crossroads, there is a pear tree, and under that pear tree sits Penjo the forester, bare chested and digging at a twig with a pocket knife. Penjo took the job recently. Before him, we had Deli Stancho, and before him yet, this dark guy – can’t recall his name.

It’s dawn. Down below, coming from the village, a big caravan appears accompanied by the barking of dogs and the hoarse voice of the assistant. “Ours”, mutters Penjo under his nose and gets up, meets them, and wishes them good day, and the caravan turns down the road towards the protected section. The assistant passes him some tobacco, and Tinko the Brave manages to tuck into his sash a small bottle of raki. The big caravan, like a giant caterpillar, dives into the dark depths of the protected forest. Penjo stretches lazily, finds the bottle inside his sash, and lifts it towards his mouth. The sun takes a peek over the hill and licks his moustache like a young kitten. Down below, another group of carts starts squeaking, and in a bit, they arrive: the former mayor, his son-in-law, Deli Stancho, and two others still, of the opposition party. Penjo meets them, strict and silent, checks their passes, and they take the road towards the felling section. Later, from the direction of the village, the dust cloud of the village livestock billows. The cattle pass, the pig famer passes, Limping Petko with his donkey passes, and silence settles again. The sun, having jumped on top of the hill, stares down. It’s hot. Penjo scratches his neck, rolls another cigarette, and wonders what direction to take. Yesterday, he went to the hazelnut forest to see if the hazelnuts had ripened, the day before he grilled some corn knobs at the Staikov hollow near the well. To go for a nap, it’s too early, and he doesn’t feel like eating. If only widow Stana were coming to pick beans near the Dairy Farm – why does she havе to deal with her laundry today?!

Penjo bends, takes his bag, the rifle, and starts slowly under the shadows along the river. “This job,” he thinks as he walks, “so easy!” He knew that from before – being a civil servant is the easiest job. Half an hour of work, and then the rest of the day is free. It is also possible to do entirely nothing. In a day or two, he will take a stroll by the forest border and the smugglers will give him a few leva. Go figure these people from other villages – they have learnt their ways, and everybody has the requisite amount tucked in their belt! And he doesn’t charge much – according to the material. If they are stealing for beams – so many leva; for wheel spoke material– this much; and for firewood, they know the fee. His wife worries that the head forester will hear something and will fire him – does he dare? Did he run around during the last elections for nothing? Is it that easy to fire one of ours? Doesn’t he know who assigns the jobs?

And the former mayor, with the others from the opposition – let them sweat a bit searching for trees to fell in the already cleared section. Serves them right! Have they not gorged themselves before? Let them struggle a bit, and then partial amnesty shall be given. Look at Deli Stancho, and those before him, building houses without even picking an axe. Before they didn’t happen to have a lev to give you change, and now their money is well-hidden. Let them bring him two-three carts with material – and he will let them in the protected section too. But during a holiday, so nobody will be watching. He had his house, that’s true, but his son will grow into a man! And does he know for how long ours will be in power! Name me a forester who didn’t find himself eventually with no house! That the whole forest will be felled, that no income enters the municipal coffers – is it up to him to ponder these issues?!  Two more years in this job, and may no tree remain! Is he the only one behaving thus? Before the party came into power, only six people were loyal to it, and look at them now – how they sneaked with his assistant in the protected forest! Was there ever another way? It is always five or six men that enter the felling section, and the whole village – the protected one.

Deep in thought, without noticing, Penjo the forester reaches the Rakov[1] pond, drops his bag, props the rifle against a tree, sits on a stone, takes off his clothes, and slowly walks into the cool water. Around him – endless forest silence. A big green fly takes a turn around his head, but at the sight of the rifle under the tree, buzzes nervously and disappears in the darkness of the forest.

I don’t know about your village, but ours stretches across the two banks of a river. Once the river ran mighty and strong, but now there is not enough for the frogs to cool down. Only up the stream, in the forest, here and there, do ponds remain, where the local foresters bathe.  

[1] Rak = crab


Under the big crooked walnut tree in the cemetery, sitting in the shade, Lying Sabi and Neno the Senegalese were sharpening their scythes. A few days ago, the parish administration had given them а plot and now they were ready to crop the hay. Not that there was much hay in a cemetery, but they would tidy it up, and there would probably be quackgrass[1] and weeds, enough for three cattle. Because the whole livelihood of those two came down to two cows and ‘uncle’ – the serious donkey of Lying Sabi. Quite poor they both are. Their clothes – tatters, hanging on them – and with their long beards and uncut hair from Christmas till now, from afar you might mistake them for kukeri[2]. Neno is a humble man, his skin dark almost black[3] and a widower. Bowed, crammed in his poverty as in a cocoon, and his gaze is always lowered; but Lying Sabi, oh my Lying Sabi is the kind of peculiar you won’t find even three hours away from here!  If the devils in the nether world are governed by a three-person committee, as we believe, when Lying Sabi dies he would be the Chair. You look at him – barely a man, and one of his shoulders is bent, but his eyes sparkle like these of a cat in a dark oven, and it is as if he looks at you but sees everything beyond you. And always there is a hint of a smile. Quite out of nowhere, as he is cleaning his pipe, and you and he are talking, he would lead you on with one of his falsehoods, and you will be left to wonder how it happened! That’s why they call him Lying Sabi. And when he thinks of a nickname for someone – it will stick like a spoon in butter, and then even if you try to clean it with endless bars of soap, you won’t be able to.  

The sun had peered over Sinovetz[4], grinning and as big as a large baking tray. The crooked walnut tree, spreading its shade like a goatskin rug, reached as far as the grave of priest Enjo; while directly below the bag, hanging on one of the branches, Neno’s spotty dog was biting at its fleas.

“Clank, clink, clank, clink, clank, clink, clank, clink, clank[5]”, the scythes were singing, while the small hammers were laying one blow after another. When he placed the final stroke of the hammer at the very top of the scythe, Lying Sabi got up, poured some water from his flask over the whetstone, then went with the stone several times along the top and bottom of the blade, and shouted:

“Come on, Neno, get up, we have work to do! I will start from priest Enjo over there to the mound, as there are new graves and briar, and you strike downwards towards the small dell. Get up, it’s Saturday today, let’s ready them all for tomorrow’s day of celebration!” He then shook his pipe clean, put it in his belt, got a firm grip on the scythe, spread his legs, and started.

The grave of priest Enjo was level with the ground. Only a bent cross gave away the location. When he came close, without stopping his strike, Sabi raised his voice:

“I am sorry grandpa priest, but your priesthood ends here[6]! I will shave all of you, one by one – hold on!”

The narrow scythe started hissing around the cross, laying down the tall grass that had grown over the head of priest Enjo. When he finished shaving the priest and those around him, Sabi started, out of line, towards his long-deceased neighbour and friend, Cheko Cholpana, and called on him from afar:

“Start lathering, my neighbour, I am coming! I’ve never lit a candle for you cause of this goddamn poverty, but today decided to shave you on holy Saturday! If you could only see your long beard! You look like a Protestant!”

He had just begun to clear the grass stalks around the grave of Cheko when the dog under the walnut tree gnarled its teeth, barked once or twice, and then bent its head again to bite its fleas. Down, along the road that passes next to the graves, came Chekovitza, the widow of Cheko carrying а strainer, a hoe on her shoulder and a water jug in hand. Мean and angry at Lying Sabi because she couldn’t stand his jokes, she passed quickly by the croppers without greeting them.

“You’ve put a lot of diesel in your engine, Chekovitze, you whiz by like an aeroplane without even greeting us[7]!”

“I hope your ears start whizzing as you‘re always on the look out to laugh at somebody!”

“Don’t be so bitter, and better come here to help! To hold Cheko still so that we can shave him –  his beard is now so sharp – he will be jumping all around when we start!”

“You should be shaved icy cold – you, good for nothing and for no one! You are not afraid of being sinful, and you make fun of the dead”, roared the widow, then climbed a mound of soil next to her and continued, “You should go visit him, and not come back! May you never walk away from this graveyard, you lousy dirty gipsy!”

Her kerchief fell to her neck. With her hair scraggly and scary, words like flames came out of her mouth without stopping.

Calm and smiling, Lying Sabi could barely throw in an occasional witty remark.

“Stop shouting, stop shouting and fix your kerchief, cause if Cheko rises and sees you like this, he immediately will jump back into the grave!”

“And you after him, may the earth swallow you, beggar, and nobody ever speak again of you and your relatives! May the black plague take your family, diphtheria infect all of you and may you find yourself in a bottomless pit with no rest anywhere!”

The fire of the attack was now incessant. Having decided to annihilate her opponent without trace, Chekovitza had started cursing savagely, then took soil from the mound and threw furious handfuls at them over the wall. Lying Sabi bent down a little, with a smile on his face, and shouted:

“You better correct your aim, Cholpanke, because you are aiming too high – you’ll hit Neno – Neno, the beauty of this village, and kill him! And I was planning to marry you off to him, you know?”

“May both of you be married off to fairies, you cursed dog, while goblins make your shelves jump! May a black cat jump over your body when you die, so that you become a vampire!”

With mouth frothing, and voice gone, she decided to close the distance and go on the attack. She collapsed down the mound, run, climbed the wall of the graveyard, and it was as if she was no longer shouting, but barking:

“I hope you die! I hope a lightning strikes you, your mother, your father, and your children too!”

“Neno”, Sabi raised his voice, “come, come if you haven’t seen a gorilla alive – come, have a look at one! A long time ago, I saw one at the Plovdiv fair but this one is far more unkempt!”

“Ahahahahaha”, the Senegalese was laughing, resting on his scythe. His big mouth was wide open, almost to his ears, and his good teeth could be seen white in the sunshine as if he had swallowed a piece of cheese[8].

[1] The Bulgarian word that Chudomir used was ‘осига‘. After googling it for a bit, I think quackgrass comes close as a noxious weed that you can find in fields.

[2] Kukeri (Кукери) wear elaborate costumes, and perform traditional spring rituals to chase evil spirits in many Bulgarian villages. This is a good National Geographic story on kukeri:

[3] The original word used was ‘арапин‘, an archaic word for a black man.

[4] Probably a village in North Bulgaria.

[5] In Bulgarian ‘джин – джан’ – it took me sometime to find the right onomatopoeic expression.

[6] Bulgarian Orthodox priests have a beard. Shaving will be equal to renouncing priesthood.

[7] The original expression used was to give a ‘selim’ – Turkish Bulgarian for a greeting.

[8] Bulgarian cheese made from cow’s milk is white.