Claudia Ann Seaman Awards for Young Writers, Creative Non-Fiction 2017
Winner: Nadezhda Dimitrova, Pavlikeni Bulgaria
Across From Home
At the end of Pavlikeni, there lived my family. At the hill yonder was the cemetery – surrounded by a forest on the left, a vineyard on the right – and our house in front of the cemetery entrance. It was only me and Mama, who spent all her time working in the Kombinat za opakovki, the cardboard factory. She often brought home colorful cardboard – unusable boxes with mistaken shades and smeared captions. I folded them in the twilight, while the light faded outside and the fire, reinforced by cardboard, crackled cheerfully inside. The gluttonous flames licked the colored cardboard, creating new hues and highlights in the fireplace; the gluttonous flames first licked them, as tasting for color – for sweetness, for joy. They radiated warmth toward me and smiled at me gratefully. The flames often turned red before continuing onto the next colour. But the most charming of all was the turquoise. It reminded me of Mama’s pickles.
Most people fear fire. Not me. I spoke to the flames which frequently gave me ideas about games or told me things about the world. Neighbors and even people at the other end of town worried that our unprotected house might one day burn down, but I knew the flames would always protect me.
Because there was no one to look after me at home, Mama sent me to the kindergarten, but that lasted only three days. So I was stuck at home again. I spent most of my free time – which was all of my time – alone. I embraced my solitude in the cemetery. There were some trees between the graves, and perched in a stately manner on their branches were three families of ravens “with mien of lord or lady.” I listened to their pleasant warble and often I joined their singing with improvised tunes of my own. Occasional visitors shouted at the ravens to leave their deceased in peace. What grave misunderstanding of the harbingers of powerful secrets and guardians of ancestral memories.
With time, the cemetery inched closer to us. Pavlikeni was a small village, and as there was no cemetery space in any other direction and people continued dying, they began digging graves on the hill across from our home. I often heard the elders nag how the young had moved to the big city, never to return again. Babies coming to the bright world were a special celebration as no lads remained, and the population grew smaller.
People said that one day our house would be in the midst of the cemetery, too. That didn’t make me sad in the least; I didn’t see how that would change our lives. I asked the ravens if that were true, and they simply told me not to fear the Night’s Plutonian shores.
On Sunday evenings, shortly before dark, I picked bouquets of the flowers people left on the graves. I chose the prettiest flowers, took them home and put them in the jar that had just been emptied of Mama’s pickles. When I became a student, I brought the bouquets to the teacher on Mondays. She had once been to our home and thought the flowers came from our garden.
Mourners brought black crosses made from wooden planks to the funerals. Carved into them were the names and dates of the dead carved so that spirits would recognize their graves and know their way home after their nightly walks. And also the ravens assured me they would guide any wandering ghost to his bedchamber before morning broke. But after a few months, the spirits could tell their way home. And so, when the flowers on a grave faded and the pile of dirt slumped and dried, I dragged the crosses home.
They couldn’t wait for the fire, to make friends with the cardboard boxes. They popped so blissfully, and the flames jumped up and down, and became golden and hot. It was most pleasant at home. Mama was there and she was always smiling. And the flames told beautiful stories of the dead. Usually Mama spared the stumps and never let me put two crosses in at once so we could have enough to last the frosty winter, and so the stories never crossed.
I walked frequently to the cemetery, and it was both my park and playground. At school, the teacher and other kids were mostly terrified of ghosts, but Mama and the ravens talked dearly about them. I was there mostly during the day, so I never met the ghosts, although I wished I could meet one and hear something about my father, as Hamlet did. In any case, it was most pretty when a funeral was held. You could feel the world and the afterworld connect. When the mourners left, they left new crosses, flowers, and sometimes cookies.
While roaming the cemetery’s paths to sate my boredom and beguile my empty stomach, I often found snacks and wine on long-abandoned graves. As if someone was watching for me from above. Or rather below. I thanked them, and they nodded in approval. I put the items in a plastic bag and poured the wine in an empty plastic water bottle. People had their vices, Mama said, and hers was red wine.
That’s how I spent my childhood in the graveyard. From there we ate and drank, from there we took our warmth, and from there came our flowers. Mama said: “Let God be merciful and forgive us, for we have no money.”
These days, I work in a hotel in London. I don’t go back to Bulgaria, but every day I meet people from around the world and I listen to interesting stories. Some travelers have also spoken with nature; others fear and misunderstand as did my neighbors in Pavlikeni. I think they do so because they are not used to death and not understanding the natural cycle of life, they are afraid of their own perishability and insignificance.
Mama lives in the cemetery, now, which reached all the way to our house, just as the people and the ravens said it would. When they called me to tell me that Mama passed away, I flew back to Sofia, and arrived at the little village of Pavlikeni in a few hours. While I was traveling back home, my thoughts were travelling to my childhood. I tried to laugh because I remembered how Mama used to say: “Now we live across the cemetery, and in a few years, I will move to live across from our home.”
And that is how it happened. Exactly across from our home. As if with the treats, with the crosses and with the flowers, I had carried the cemetery into our home.
Mr. Davis writes: Nadezhda creates a world that is both haunting and magical with her loving memoir of a child who is alone, yet embraces a life of solitude at the foot of an expanding cemetery with her mother. The story is lyrical and lovely, engaging all the senses and creating a strong sense of place. You can feel the warmth of the fire and the warmth of the love—all done with strong imagery and a powerful message of understanding the bridges between the living and the dead.