Winter was wild this year. The sky was full of snow and wind; the trees in front of the cafe looked like stubbly old men in the white air; it was cold in the narrow room overlooking the Struma River that flowed tiredly, grumbling to its rocks. Gogo slept by her side, bent double, his skin whiter than the January sky. She lived in the café, in the back room overlooking the river. She liked the guys who serviced the big truck which collected the garbage on Main Street. They drank her coffee, their black eyes pushing under her old blue apron.
"I'll buy you a silver ring," the shortest of them said once, but Viah knew he didn't have money; none of the guys had money. Yet they looked at her as if they could buy her the sky, and the small park covered with dirty snow. She had rented the café and had named it "Viah Café" after herself. It was the favorite haunt of the men who collected the garbage, the men from the slate quarry and from the slaughterhouse. They all brought their smells with them – slaughtered animals, gunpowder, occasionally garbage – and they brought their eyes, too.
She always had someone: the strongest one, the man who had slaughtered the most animals. Now the man who had killed the most barren cows slept by her side with his white skin that sparkled by her brown body. He held her in his dreams. That man's name was Gogo, but the guys called him Blood. His nose had been broken several times.
In the afternoons, he stopped her in the café to sniff her blue apron, "You smell sweet," he said, but that could hardly be true. Cigarette smoke crept up to the ceiling and the room was thick with suspicious odors: of boots, wet coats, and the rest. The men watched him smell the collar of her apron and didn't dare to utter a sound, their eyes buying Viah every drop of the Struma River – from its source to the Aegean Sea. Whenever Gogo showed up in the café, were it at noon, at daybreak, or at 2 a.m., Viah went right away to that cold bed in the backroom, which was full of vodka and big demijohns of brandy. She loved him till she left him perfectly mousy and powerless in his unbelievably white skin.
"I'll buy you a gold bracelet" he whispered choking, but Viah knew he was broke. Blood gave her all his money and she bought cheap brandy for the men who drank it in the café. She preferred not to think of the bad brandy while she listened to his happy voice that lied to her about the bracelet. His obedient happy skin smiled at her with all its pores. Even at noon when the men who collected the garbage ordered French fries, Gogo waited for her in the backroom, glowing like an ember. She came in and stayed until his skin could no longer love her.
Several times the French fries turned into coals in the pan. The dustmen learned to take chicken livers out of the fridge, then fried and ate them underdone as they listened to the sounds coming from Viah's backroom.
"Come with me to Italy," Gogo asked her once. He had made arrangements to go to Calabria – there were so many olive trees there; you picked olives all day and the Italians, who were frog-eaters as he had heard, paid you handsomely. But how could he go to Calabria when Viah waited for him in the café? He didn't get into fights any more, for if he got slashed he would have to go to the hospital, and that would mean he'd lose a precious day with her.
"Won't you start for Italy?" She asked him one day. "You'll miss the season of olives."
He simply could not go; she was like food for him. He'd be starving without her. Viah looked thoughtfully at his white skin, at his face that was a most ordinary stubbly face.
She had watched another white face before his, an almost beardless face of another man, who slept at exactly the same place in the bed by the wall. That was Radomir, the only son of the old man who made the wild fruit brandy.
"You have to leave for Calabria tomorrow," she urged Gogo. He woke up, said to her "come on" and she did, giving him what he wanted. Then she repeated, "You have to leave for Italy tomorrow."
She thought of the brandy in the big demijohns. Or rather, she thought of the old man who brought the brandy. He was Radomir's father. Radomir picked olives in Spain. In the evening he often called her on her mobile. He told her he counted the days that separated him from her and her narrow room. He was the brandy man. His father brewed the brandy, allegedly out of plums – but what plums could anyone brag about, for God's sake, when the trees in his orchard had withered long time ago?
The old man put various things into the brandy, simmered it gently for hours, mixed sloes, haws and damsons, and perhaps he cursed it a lot, for his concoction tasted like death. The geezer moved quietly like a grass snake; he crawled up and down the hills of Barren Ridge for miles and miles to find a damson tree. The sun had baked his skin, winds from Greece scorched him and rains from Macedonia drenched him. He dragged an enormous sack into which he thrust wild pears, damsons, rose-hips for his brandy thinking how he'd bring it to Viah. He came early in the day, twice a week, silent like soot, and she recognized him by the smell of wild fruits and berries. She liked that smell.
She said she liked the old man's brown woolen jacket in which he dressed himself up for her. Viah didn't mind that he had tried to kill the odor of rotten pears by pouring a bucketful of cheap cologne over his face and hands.
She kissed him gently. She did not leave him alone until his thin face appeared silver with happiness; in fact, his face glowed white on account of his toothy smile. Viah kissed him ignoring the brand new shirt he had put on especially for her. She did not think about the enormous demijohns of brandy he made out of cornels and haws. She admired him. She truly respected him. He did so well for his age.
Afterwards, she gently took him out of the narrow room and asked him to get into his old boneshaker. There the old man slept, his head propped against the rusty steering wheel, his woolen jacket thrown over his shoulders to keep him warm. Viah always wrapped him up, left a bottle of wild brandy for him and thrust a loaf of bread into his paper bag.
Then the place next to wall in her bed was free for Gogo.
"You have to leave for Calabria, yes you have to. There are heaps of olives to pick there. The biggest olives in the world grow in Calabria. Go there quick, or other guys will pluck them all."
"You come with me and I'll start packing right away," Gogo said.
"Come off it," Viah answered absentmindedly, thinking of Radomir. He was soon to return from Spain. He called her in the dead of night to tell her that the raindrops were as big as walnuts, that the winds smelled of her and reached his bowels. He said it felt nasty in Spain because Viah was not there. The Spanish women were so short and squat. Night in, night out, Radomir told Viah he felt she was close to him. Viah listened to what he was going to do to her when he came back and smiled at the demijohns. He asked her if his father brought her wild berry brandy twice a week, as they had agreed, and wanted to know whether the jerks from the slaughterhouse annoyed her.
"Everything is OK," Viah answered. "Yes, yes." She was waiting for him. She had even bought a new pillowcase for his pillow, which waited for him, too. He had to stay a little more in Spain, though.
All the electrons in the air gathered in Radomir's voice and shouted that Viah was the greatest Spanish woman he knew, the tallest and the prettiest Spanish woman, although she was Bulgarian, every single inch of her. The girls he happened to meet in Spain were fools. Then he promised miserably he'd endure one more week in the Spanish rain, thinking of his new and clean pillowcase. All right, Viah answered him as she served the unshaven garbage collectors their brandies and sensed their eyes on her blouse. Stay in Spain one week more, she thought to herself.
"You have to leave for Italy," she told Gogo softly. He had gathered himself up and asked her to come on again, and she was about to, but then she suddenly thought she could not accommodate both Spain and Italy on the same clean pillowcase. She was sure that the season of the olives could not go on forever, she could not tell the old man every time that on the following Thursday they'd get into his boneshaker and spend the night on Barren Ridge under stars as tiny as dust.
She loved Radomir, she loved Gogo and she loved the old wild brandy man.
Sometimes she thought she should leave the café and say good bye to the men who collected the garbage. She could rent another café, a little warm hole, far away from the Struma River, from the bearded snowy willows, the dark eyes that she liked better than any brandy under the sun. She'd sure find another cheap backwoods café. Maybe the whole country was a warm, cheap café; maybe she, too, was the only warm café for men who were to leave for Spain to pick olives or make houses for the Spanish women.
She knew she should go away but she loved Radomir, she loved Gogo, and she loved the old wild brandy man so much.
_Zdravka Evtimova was born in Bulgaria and lives in Brussels, Belgium. Her short stories have appeared in various journals worldwide, including the US, Germany, France and Japan. She works as a literary translator.