“Night Vigils” comes in the middle of Albena Stambolova’s new novel, Everything Happens as It Does (Open Letter Books). This chapter is a sample of Stambolova’s idea-rich and scintillating prose. The reader doesn’t need to know much context to make this chapter complete, save that Margarita and her father have not seen a lot of each other lately, and, for the most part, she is a rather odd young woman. I think my favorite aspect of this chapter is the way Stambolova can write about such commonplace scenarios and make them sound surprising and intimate (perhaps even intrusive). Through the eyes of Margarita, Stambolova manages to convey the authentic nature of experience as a surprising and unsettling encounter with otherness.
— Jacob Glover (see NC’s review of the novel here)
Margarita tiptoed between tangled legs and arms, tilted lamps, overturned glasses and all kinds of remnants from hours of sitting, smoking, talking and listening to music. She saw a couple kissing, their lips sunk into each other with such riveting force that she could not take her eyes off them. Worn-out desperate things had a strange effect on her. A threadbare blanket, for example, or this hopeless kiss, beautiful like a dead rose’s petals dripping with their scent of hysteria. She decided to walk around them, bumped into a sleeping body and the solid surface of an armchair, finally reached an emptier space with enough room for both her feet and managed to steady her step. Where could she have left her coat, her oversized, long black coat and her gigantic bag? They must be here somewhere. The figure of a man holding a candle appeared out of nowhere. Nothing ever happened the way one anticipated it. Come to think of it, even tonight, earlier in the evening, she had tried to explain that she didn’t have the time, but it turned out that she did have the time, she had lots of time. And what birthday were they talking about, no one had a birthday. At least she couldn’t see anyone who had a birthday.
For the first hour or so, it had been only the three of them—the boy who had brought her and who seemed to know her very well, and the girl she had assumed was the hostess, as she had changed into different clothes at least twice. They had all been sitting around a low coffee table when the girl had stood up and walked away, and just when they had almost forgotten about her, she reappeared wearing something like a transparent nightgown over her naked body. She looked beautiful in the dim light. Then more people came and Margarita lost sight of the girl, only to see her later in a different outfit, which made her doubt for a moment that it was the same person.
Now she was looking for her coat and her bag, and she was starving. Finally she stepped into a room with piles of coats thrown on a bed, and she buried her hands to search for hers. She recognized it by the touch of her fingers, like a blind person, and pulled it out, overcoming the resistance of the soft mass of clothes around it. Her bag was on the floor and she almost tripped over it. She flung it on her shoulder, continuing to tread carefully toward the exit.
Once outside, she could see only machines; there were people, but the people were all inside machines—trams, buses, and cars. She didn’t feel like going home, and decided instead to visit her father. The trams’ jangle and dazzling threaded lights did not seem inviting, so she headed there on foot, her heavy bag on her shoulder.
Walking gave her the satisfaction of work well done. Work that was pleasant and amusing, squeak-squeak-squeaking feet on the snow. Gliding, slaloming between the parked cars, stopping at traffic lights, standing upright like a soldier.
At night the city looked like a picture. Spaces look indistinct, the houses are surprising. At night the city lets you be; it lets you in, in all of its places, which, you then realize, belong to the city and not to you, a passerby. If you are brave enough, it will let you in even deeper, to places invisible in daylight no matter how hard you look for them. Night people in the city know this, they belong to the city, and that’s why they are scary and others are frightened by them.
Margarita was not thinking about these things. She never thought about anything at all. Thinking for her was like floating down a babbling stream, gently propelled by the drift of her unusual perceptions, until someone broke the spell by speaking or asking for something. No one had ever heard Margarita herself ask for anything. If she happened to feel like “asking,” what other people would call “asking,” she just let her feet take her to a place where whatever she needed simply happened to her. If she ever felt scared by something, she would run away and no one could stop her. She had thus gone through a number of schools, special schools and ordinary ones, she had started many classes and abandoned many, until one day Maria decided that she deserved some peace. Margarita read books, children’s stories and other books, she went out with people, to the cinema or elsewhere, but how far her knowledge of things extended was a mystery. She did not seem depressed about not fitting into a normal category, and the doctor, Mr. T., whom she was seeing about once a month, had himself come to a standstill in observing her perpetual state. Valentin would sometimes drag her with him for weekends or holidays with friends, and Margarita would blend in, in her own dazed way. At the same time, she never forgot faces or people in general. Her memory, free as it was from all other things, recorded words, faces, situations—gathering an endlessly abundant material that would make quite a few film directors happy.
Now she strolled about the city and registered no signs of danger. Every once in a while she felt the weight of her bag and moved it to her other shoulder. What was in that bag, only she knew, whatever to know meant for Margarita.
The window of her father’s apartment gleamed like a beacon. He answered the door almost immediately, dumbfounded to see her. So much so, that for a moment he did not invite her to come in, but let the smell of something burning reach her nose in wafts through the open door.
Are you alright?
Margarita smiled at him happily and he stepped back. He knew that she perceived things differently, but all the same he felt uncomfortable that she could see the remains of his lonely midnight dinner in the black frying pan. He chased away the thought of Maria’s ability to prepare something tasty out of anything, her oven turning out unbelievable dishes as if by itself.
Margarita looked at the piano, but her father waved his hand—not now, people are sleeping.
I’m hungry, dad.
Straight away he put a plate and some bread on the table, poured her a soda drink and took a salad out of the fridge. Margarita began to chew heartily, while her father wondered how he could possibly tell her that he was worried about her.
He asked about Valentin, but quickly hit some barrier and concluded that he needed to find out what was happening at his wife’s house.
Margarita finished eating, suddenly looking sad. He shouldn’t have spoken to her about Valentin. He took a sip of his beer and asked her about the baby. Margarita’s reaction was calmer, her mother and the baby were fine. And dear Boris? She hadn’t seen him for a while.
Her father felt anxious, the way he did every time he received news from Maria’s house. Margarita stirred from her seat like a restless bird before a storm. She wanted to go to bed and her father drove her home. He kissed her goodnight, lightly, as if this was something he did every night.
When she climbed into her enormous boat of a bed, her grandmother’s lamp was still lit. She couldn’t tell if there was anyone in the house.
Excerpted from Everything Happens as it Does by Albena Stambolova
Trans. Olga Nikolova from Bulgarian
Pubished by permission of Open Letter Books