Hell found me! Most of the time, I felt peaceful. I rarely talked to anybody. I had always lived in unstable silence, winters hurling snow and rain at my windows, passing unnoticed and unnecessary. Probably, my next-door neighbor thought I was a queer fish. I could tell that by the way she stared at me when she met me at the grocery store. I’d been living in the neighborhood for five months. I chose a room with a window to the North, tucked away down a narrow street. All the houses were small and you could scarcely see them in the fog. There was fog everywhere: on the roofs, in the trees, in my hair and coat. The sun gave birth to fog instead of mornings.
I thought I was bad company so I kept myself to myself, going for interminable strolls in the wasteland surrounding the only bridge in town. I tried to remember the outlines of the low squat buildings as they slowly dissolved into the afternoons like memories of a snowstorm. Sometimes guys whistled at me. The town was not big. People knew each other but I was a complete stranger, a new poster advertising a concert on the main street.
I guessed the townsfolk unanimously mistrusted me when they learned what I did for a living. Even before the end of the first month living on the narrow street, I gained a steady notoriety as an unbearable teacher of mathematics. I wanted the students to prove theorems and solve problems. I didn’t speak much to them. Even on the first day of school, I caught two guys cribbing from finely folded sheets of paper they had tucked up their sleeves. The bad thing about me was that I saw and heard most of what happened in the classroom. I could almost always tell when a guy was trying to cheat. When I was a little girl, even Grandma could not trick me into believing that Dad had gone on a long business trip to Greece to make money for us. I knew he had divorced my mother. A year after that, I knew my mother would not come back home to see me as she had promised after uncle Ivan took her to the hospital for some blood tests. I tried to keep a stiff upper lip, but all I managed was to bite my lower one, which had long ago become very thin and colorless.
I only talked in the classroom. I hated to see guys copying from their neighbors. I took the neatly folded sheets of paper with the formulae from their fists and kept them on my desk. My classes hated me. I saw it in their eyes and everything I said seemed short, stiff and formal. Outside of class, I felt awkward every time I met a student sauntering by, the fog freezing me in front of the bridge near the wilderness.
One Wednesday, I asked one of the students to prove the theorem about raising the diagonals of a rhombus to the second power. I watched him closely as he tore the sheet from his textbook and started walking to the blackboard. He began to copy the theorem from the sheet, not even trying to conceal what he was doing. He printed the words slowly, unfalteringly, taking peeks at me behind his shoulder. I gave him a poor mark.
“Sit down,” I said.
He remained in front of the blackboard, calm, tall, writing the formulae, his fingers sifting out the chalk powder. He copied the theorem to the end and bowed to the class. The students applauded vigorously, some laughing, others smirking. I didn’t know what to do with my eyes and my hands. I panicked. I had dropped a piece of chalk some time ago and I saw it at my feet on the floor. It was very hot in the room. Words failed me, I stood there, egg on my face. I was scared my voice would sound gravelly and they all would dissolve into laughter. They watched on, perfectly silent. I staggered to the blackboard and gripped another piece of chalk, then started dictating slowly, the words dead on my lips, “The diagonals of a rhombus…”
The students listened. I hoped they had not noticed how dry my voice was or perhaps they were accustomed to it that way. Suddenly the boy I had given a poor mark jumped from his desk and sent his bag crashing to the floor.
“Excuse me,” he said, strutted to my desk, took my piece of chalk, and left without closing the door.
All the rest were silent, watching me. I checked the boy’s name in the register. Mikhail.
I had four more lessons that each weighed a ton. I felt squashed; in fact, every day I left school as exhausted as if I had dragged crags and stones from the slate-quarry in the hill to my living room. I had a headache. The schoolyard, shops, and birches were brown silhouettes, and the town was whispers and whirring of motors through which my headache and I walked. I reached my narrow street where the houses were neat and immobile mussel shells.
The small square in front of the cottage where I lived was my medicine. It ended abruptly at the foot of a hill overgrown with shrubs and thorns that mixed with the autumn and its starless sky. I wanted a cup of tea. I wanted my warm room where I could forget the classroom, the town, and the theorems. Every evening I lit all of the lamps and celebrated the absence of fog and blackboards around me. I had counted the steps that separated my room from the schoolyard. It was fun counting the yards that I had to walk before my cup of strong tea.
Somebody whistled at me. I jumped. I rarely met people in my narrow street, silence there felt like the ocean floor. The face, which popped up in the mist before me, gave me the creeps. It was the student I had given a poor mark.
I walked slowly on, aware of strange noises. I soon realized there were two more guys I didn’t know with Mikhail. I crept on, forbidding myself to turn back, feeling their words and breaths on my neck. I was not scared, not in the least. I could hear their light footfalls behind my back. When I was a little girl, my grandmother used to leave me at home by myself when she gave lessons in math to students at their homes. I was accustomed to silence and I knew it was my friend. The three guys stalked me, silent like the brown clouds. I had lived alone and I was not afraid of footsteps in the dark. I reached the front door of the house where I lived, turned around, and looked at them. They stared back. I entered the house and closed the door. Inside was quiet and warm.
On the following day, Mikhail walked out of the classroom in the middle of my lesson. He had been humming a familiar tune for quite a time. When I asked him to stop, he winked at the class, then left.
In the afternoon, Mikhail and the other two guys trailed after me while I walked along the street paved with gray. I wished I could dash off, yet I wasn’t scared. It was dark and I could hear their shoes hit the pavement. One of the three guys, the tallest among them with a swarthy face, caught up with me, halted, and looked me in the eyes.
“I’d like to tell you something,” he said. “My name is Boris.” His face, long and thin, almost touched mine. He cleared his throat. “I have never met a girl like you. You have a good figure.” His dark eyes measured me slowly. “You have a beautiful voice. Your eyes are beautiful.”
A thick stream of derision oozed from his words. Mikhail and the other guy were only a step away from us, watching me, snickering. Boris, the tallest one, snickered too. Then he let out a loud guffaw. I looked at him and then turned and continued down the street. The houses waddled in the dusk making it jagged and menacing. I reached the small square, the shrubs and wilderness. This time my well-lit room and my cup of strong tea were no good.
In the morning I had a headache that became excruciating during the five lessons with my classes. I dictated the problems and repeated the theorems, trying to ignore the waves of uneasiness as best as I could. Finally the lessons were over and I walked slowly out of the school yard.
The three guys were waiting for me at the beginning of my narrow street. They roared with laughter the minute they saw me. I hurried past them, trying to remain composed.
“I’d like to tell you something,” one of the guys shouted. I didn’t stop. I noticed his eyes were the color of the fog – watery, cold. “I have never met a girl like you before. You have a good figure. You have a beautiful voice…” He was short of breath and looked at Mikhail and Boris for support. I didn’t wait for the remaining part of the explanation.
“Will Mikhail be the next one?” I asked.
My question was greeted with jeers. I ignored them. My eyes were beautiful, I knew that. I left the guys where they were, feeling their eyes watching my back as I walked down the narrow street. I went home and tried to sleep. The town was blue behind the windowpanes.
In the morning before I went to work, I found the three guys in the square with the bridge. Mikhail and Boris came striding along to meet me.
“I’d like to tell you something,” Mikhail said. Then he blushed and looked away.
“I won’t listen to you,” I told him.
“I have never met a girl like you,” he said. “You have a good figure. Your voice is beautiful. And your eyes…” He looked at the bridge for help, hoping I’d go away. I waited.
“Her hair is beautiful, too,” Boris whispered in Mikhail’s ear. Boris’ words were sharp, cutting his face into two halves.
“Tomorrow I’ll wait for you at 7 PM in front of my house,” I said.
“She’s up to something,” Boris muttered.
Perhaps my neighbor had seen me and was wondering what I was discussing with these young men. I took a step forward. I had to go to work.
“What did you say?” Mikhail asked.
I did not answer.
“Hey, what did you say?” Boris cried out, his voice indignant. “You’ll wait for me, is that it?”
I didn’t answer him. I had one thousand more steps more before I reached the classroom.
“What did you say?” Boris caught up with me.
“Tomorrow at 7 PM,” I said, so quietly he had to bend in order to hear my words.
That day I examined many students. I spoke slowly, avoiding their eyes. I didn’t look at Mikhail.
At 7 PM sharp I was in front of my house. Boris had already arrived. The other two boys were a couple of yards away from him, hiding behind a clump of pine trees. This time they were not laughing. They watched me. I watched them too, and I was not scared.
Boris waited, his hands thrust into his pockets. I came up to him, nodded, studying his face. It was very smooth and dark. He kept silent as I watched him run his fingers through his hair. It was black and thick.
“Hi,” he said at last.
The other two guys had pushed aside the branches of the pine trees. They waited, ready to start sniggering. Suddenly I hated them.
“Stop fidgeting,” I told Boris.
He stared, confused. I caught him by the shoulders, stood on tiptoe and kissed him.
I hated Mikhail and the other guy. I hated the man I had just kissed, and I couldn’t stand the fog. I had already taken my revenge. No sound of steps chased me, no one guffawed. The fog and the pavement were peaceful. The houses smiled.
The next morning the classroom was quite peaceful. The students looked at me peculiarly, their eyes quiet like my evening cup of tea. As always, I started the lesson with a new theorem leaving a storm of chalk dust in my wake. Mikhail smiled. I stopped turning back to look at them.
When the lessons were over, Boris waited for me near the bridge. His two friends were not with him.
Zdravka Evtimova was born in Bulgaria, but now lives and works as a literary translator in Brussels, Belgium. Her short story collection “Bitter Sky” was published in 2003 in the UK by Skrev Press. Her short story collection “Somebody Else” was published by MAG Press, USA, in 2004. Short stories have appeared in Massachusetts Review, Antioch Review, and many other journals throughout UK, Canada, France, Germany, Spain, Poland and elsewhere.
“I didn’t have a porch in my native country. I lived in bleak 8-story building in a tiny apartment. Now I have a big apartment, but I still have a dream of a sun lit porch. It rains all the time in Brussels.”