In the thick February fog, enriched by the smell of coal, a young man stood on the bridge nearby the Yuchbunar bath, tore the pages of the notebook he was holding in his hand, and threw them into the river. When the torrent took the last pages, it seemed as if he hesitated for a moment, so with sudden will power, he tore the covers and threw them into the dark water, where here and there thin sheets of ice shone. Without looking down, the man turned and started to walk quickly towards the city center. At that time of night, there were no other passers-by: the streets were snowy and deserted. Here and there from the yards the barking of dogs could be heard. The light from the electric lamps along “Pirotska” street failed to break through the fog and remained hanging around the poles like a ragged halo. The man’s feet creaked in the trampled snow, blackened by soot and slag. He met no one, but even if he did, his neighbors probably would not recognize him at a first glance.
That was you.
We recognized you, Emil Strezov, we followed your every step for months and years; and if we had not seen you then on the bridge, we would have known even in a dream, we knew that you were there. Carried away with a quick roll of the eyes, despite the lowered eyelids, they noticed everything: the gray worn clothes, the footsteps in the snow of the lonely man. We watched all, we listened. We remembered when he settled in the neighborhood. When he came from a nearby town, so insignificant that it is not even worth mentioning its name, we saw with our own eyes how he became an unrecognized poet from an astonished high school student, and then, the generous autumn in the forty-fourth immediately gave you the power to solve human destinies. We joked that one day our children when they enter that university of yours, which you did not complete anyway, will find one of your songs in the thick anthologies, will start reading it, and will say to themselves: well, this is not bad. And we will tell them: Emil Strezov, he once lived opposite us. I wish you knew such a slap I once gave him. And what he did then? – the children will ask. What could he? He was not like us, a boy from the streets. What was he like? What was… He was loved by women. He was the Uncle Petar’s polite tenant, who hurried back and forth, with books under his arm, and then with a gun on his belt, but he always had time to greet and say a word or two about the great deeds of past, and the even bigger ones of the future. But if any of us had passed by you that night, they would surely have noticed that there was something strange in your way of walking, in the look, in the suddenly sunken wrinkles on your forehead, with which you looked mature and angry; and even they would wrinkle their forehead wondering if they did not recognize you correctly and whether the boy in a hurry was the same man who eagerly and with a smile on his face walked the streets of Sofia in early September.
Emil Strezov lived in the neighborhood for a long time and even we, the natives, considered him our own. When he came, he was nobody and nothing, a kid – one dusty summer morning he appeared from nowhere on the doorstep of shoemaker Petar, who was looking critically at his torn shoes, patted him on the shoulder and took him home. He had picked him up, people whispered, to live with his son, with his only son, the stutterer. By train, they whispered, by train, he came from somewhere at the north. His father died, they whispered, and his mother – who was sick, wanted him to live here and help in the shop. We did not pay much attention, but autumn came and in the yard of the high school we saw you with the stutterer – like two rabbits in a uniform. You were the same age and you walked together, you walked on the recently paved main street, your clothes were shrinking right before our eyes, you were thirstier for life and more secure, and in fact, you were shaken by the colorful whirlwind of the city, especially in those mysterious areas outside the borders of the neighborhood, where the beautiful and the rich boasted.
We all lived on the street; even you, when you weren’t studying or working. It was like that in Yuchbunar. And then came the last autumn and everything already seemed insignificant before what was happening on the street. We were all out all day, confused faces swimming in the soft light of the sunset, we greeted each other like in a dream, you passed by with that red ribbon and a gun, and somehow we just could not understand our own participation in what was happening all around, but you knew that you are part of it, even though you did not understand how exactly, as if one part of your brain was constantly surpassing the another. It was a wild and hot September; in the suburban orchards the fruits were cracking spreading their concentrated smell into the haze; and you walked around the ruins, carefully examining the bombed-out buildings, the splendor turned into useless stones, the cluttered scattering items of mysterious origins – pianos, furniture – you saw it all and felt in your fists countless possibilities. Of course, Kosta was beside you. You were both cruising through the center of the city and insatiably absorbing the devastation. The former Trgovska Street with its carefully arranged shop windows was completely demolished; only here and there could be seen collapsed pillars, sloping eaves, walls without windows like open hungry mouths. Kosta held your hand and spoke with awe. Here, he said, over these ruins, over these s-s-stones, we will build the future of communism with you. At the next corner, you stopped to admire the remains of some law firm. You hugged your friend and said exactly the same words, just without stuttering.