There was no need for words. Lyuba urged her daughter forward, indicating with a nod which way the young girl should go. Which person to approach. Not the elderly man smoking a thin cigarette or the gawky teenager, his head weighed down by enormous headphones. Not the fashionably dressed woman talking on her phone or the smiling couple strolling with a baby carriage. No, none of those would do. When her daughter hesitated, Lyuba prodded her in the ribs, pushing her toward the heavyset matron laden down with shopping bags.
They had been following the woman for several minutes as she made her way through a market buzzing with early morning activity. Crowds at the vegetable stalls, shoppers searching for the biggest potatoes, the ripest tomatoes, the plumpest squash. Merchants standing proudly behind pungent piles of onions and green mountains of cucumbers. Voices raised as they chanted the praises of their merchandise. Customers demanding the finest produce at the cheapest price. The stocky woman filled her bags and prepared to head for home.
“Get out of my way!” she snapped after the girl bumped into her. She bent down, cursing as she gathered the apples that had spilled onto the pavement. “Damn gypsies!”
As Lyuba hurried to the far side of the market with her daughter in tow, she laughed to herself. Just as she planned, that woman was more concerned with organizing her bags than with checking her purse.
Lyuba pocketed the few Bulgarian lev bills and tossed the wallet into a trash bin. Hardly anything! she fumed as she paused to catch her breath. They would do better next time. Her daughter sat on a small cement wall, contentedly sucking on a lollipop. I’ll give her a few more minutes, the mother said to herself. After all, she’s just a girl.
A grim-faced policeman walked past and Lyuba nodded at him. He ignored her and continued on his patrol. She smiled, knowing he was not turning a blind eye to her activities in the market, but rather he barely registered her presence. No one noticed her, despite her colorful ruffled skirts and the dozen gold bracelets she wore on each wrist. She was there, but she was not visible to the shoppers. And that was good for her.
Lyuba had a dark complexion disturbed by a protruding wart on the side of her nose. She had once been considered beautiful, but her beauty had faded during long years spent cleaning other people’s houses and doing their laundry. Mirela, her daughter, had unruly black hair and exotic facial features that would one day attract men’s stares. When Lyuba looked at her daughter, she couldn’t help but recognize glimmers of her own impossibly distant younger self. She feared that with the hardships that lay ahead, Mirela’s good looks would fade just as quickly.
Mother and daughter—they lived in a squalid one-bedroom flat three floors up from a neighborhood bakery. Whiffs of freshly baked bread tempted them each morning, but that was a luxury too expensive to taste. Most of the time they got by on day-old loaves of black bread, given to them by one of the two bakers who ran the shop. That was in addition to whatever leftovers they could grab from the tables at outdoor cafes and what Lyuba was willing to spend from the money they collected on the streets. Alone in the city, they were living hand to mouth but neither mother or daughter complained. They would manage, Lyuba told herself. They always had.
The next day, Lyuba poked Mirela as she lay on the mattress they shared on the floor. “Haide! Get up. We have to go!”
Mirela didn’t say a word because she couldn’t. She had been born with a minor speech impediment and was incapable of speaking with any clarity. The girl rolled back and forth, making it clear she wasn’t pleased to be woken so early.
“Don’t start with your moaning and groaning, or I’ll give you a real reason to moan and groan!”
Mirela rubbed the sleep from her eyes and made her way to the table. She plopped down on one of the flat’s two wooden chairs, rested her elbows on the Formica and her head in her hands, and waited.
“The baker gave me this,” Lyuba said, handing over a piece of pumpkin banitsa. The flaky pastry was still warm. “Eat it. But make it quick!”
A short while later Mirela followed her mother down the three flights of stairs. Overflowing garbage bags nearly blocked the landings; the stench of urine filled the air. A single lightbulb did little to light up the stairwell. When they stepped outside, Mirela was drawn to the bakery’s entrance, mesmerized by the enticing aromas.
“Come along! What’s with you today?”
They lived a short distance from a busy thoroughfare and luckily, they barely heard the clang of the ubiquitous trams from their flat. Traffic jammed the street, even at the early hour, and Mirela hurried in her mother’s footsteps. A shop owner stared out at them from a ground level window, muttering obscenities as they passed by. Morning diners filled the tables of a coffee shop, patient dogs panting at their feet. Mirela stopped to stare open-mouthed at a waiter carrying a tray of breakfast items.
“This way,” Lyuba said, pulling her daughter along.
Their route was one they took at least once a week. “Never go the same way two days in a row,” Lyuba explained. “After all, we don’t want anyone to become too familiar with us.”
When they stopped at the corner, Mirela looked at the waiting pedestrians and then up at her mother. It was not yet time, Lyuba answered with her eyes.
“Does Mirela go to school?” the friendlier of the two bakers had asked Lyuba once, as the girl stooped to pet a calico cat purring under the counter. The baker was outfitted completely in white, his clothing spotted with batter. He had a kind face and spoke with a Middle Eastern accent. He may have once told Lyuba his name, and the name of the country he came from, but she didn’t care to remember.
“No school for her,” she responded. “I teach her everything she needs.”
“What about her father? She does have a father somewhere, doesn’t she?”
“Not that I know.”
“Are you capable of providing for her? You come here every day expecting food…”
“I am not a beggar!” Lyuba insisted, although she knew his intentions were good. “You share bread that doesn’t sell, but don’t you think I am begging!”
“Dobre, dobre,” the baker replied, stepping back as if to apologize. “But if you ever need anything, you come to me. I am willing to help.”
“Yes, everyone is willing to help,” Lyuba said under her breath, but the baker had already returned to his oven.
Lyuba waited with her daughter for the traffic light to change. Of course, Lyuba wanted what was best for her daughter, but she didn’t trust anyone. Lyuba knew what Mirela needed because she knew where Mirela was heading in life. Mirela’s future would be very much like her own, and that is why Lyuba needed to be with her every hour of the day. No one else could take care of the girl, not with her speech impediment or her needy nature. But there was little she, herself, could do for her daughter except teach her the lessons of life the hard way.
“Haide!” The two of them crossed the street.
There were few people in the square outside the Sveta Sofia church that morning. A few shoppers on their way to the market. An elderly man shuffling steadily toward a wooden bench. Three well-dressed women on high heels conducting an animated conversation at high volume. A priest cloaked in black consulting what looked like a prayer book. A businessman in a suit hurrying to an appointment.
Lyuba and Mirela crossed the square as if they had an appointment of their own. As if they had somewhere important to go. As if they belonged.
“You stinking Tsigani! Go back to where you came from!”
Lyuba ignored the insolent teenagers standing to the side, but their taunting upset Mirela. As one of the teenagers spat at them, Mirela clung to her mother. Lyuba dragged her along to the other side of the square and turned the corner. It was there that Lyuba spotted the couple ambling along the main shopping street of the city.
She could see they were tourists. The man wore beige shorts and a bright orange T-shirt; an open camera bag was slung over his shoulder. The woman, dressed in a casual blouse and jeans, stared with interest at the glitzy merchandise in the display windows. Expensive stores, where Lyuba would never dare set foot. The two of them were laughing, joking, oblivious to the broken sidewalk or the heavy traffic.
Lyuba stepped into a doorway, pulling her inattentive daughter with her. She peeked out and saw the woman open her shoulder bag, searching inside for something small. Lipstick perhaps. Lyuba shook Mirela hard, as if her daughter needed to be woken up for the second time that day. She raised a finger and Mirela understood that she should wait around the corner.
Lyuba followed the couple up the street until they paused outside a men’s clothing shop. The woman pointed at something in the window and that is when Lyuba bumped into her side. The woman nearly lost her balance and leaned on her husband for support. Confused at first, she felt the strap of her bag on her shoulder and breathed a sigh of relief.
As Lyuba disappeared among the pedestrians standing at the intersection, she imagined the couple’s conversation. “How rude!” the woman would initially remark, and the man would ask, “Are you okay?” Looking inside her bag to discover her wallet missing, the woman would become hysterical, suggest calling the police. The man would try to calm her down, tell her they needed to immediately cancel her credit cards. The woman would tell him that being pickpocketed had ruined their entire vacation. All of this exchange would take place in a language Lyuba would never understand, just as her actions would never be understood by filthy rich foreigners, or by anyone for that matter.
The couple retraced their steps along the busy street toward their hotel. As they neared the next corner, a shy young girl with dark skin approached them. She held something in her hand and offered it to them when she got close. The woman grabbed at her wallet and the girl stepped back, an innocent smile on her face.
The woman frowned, seeing that her cash was gone, but her credit cards and driving license were still in place. The man extracted a 5 lev note from his own wallet and rewarded the girl. Within seconds she had vanished from sight.
When Lyuba and Mirela returned to their apartment building in the afternoon, the baker was standing in his doorway. He dropped his cigarette to the ground and stamped it out with his foot.
“A social worker came looking for you.”
“What do I need that for?” she replied.
“You may not need her, but the girl…” he said, gently touching Mirela’s head. She crouched down, searching for the bakery’s cat.
“I provide for her!”
“I didn’t say that you didn’t, but you shouldn’t turn down help when it is offered. We need all the help we can get!”
“Yes, us outsiders. I will never be a Bulgarian, even though I’m already here ten years now. You must feel the same.”
“I am Bulgarian!” she declared, but deep in her heart, she knew this was not entirely the case. Although she had lived her entire life in Sofia, she would never be accepted as a true resident of the city, nor recognized as an equal citizen of the country. She was despised, detested, discriminated against. People swore at her, spat at her, called her names. Her skin was dark; her clothes were considered odd. She spoke the language with an accent, making grammar mistakes and lacking proper enunciation. Even her rotten teeth set her apart. It would be the same for Mirela when the girl grew up.
“She should go to school,” the baker said, repeating the suggestion he had made so many times.
If only Mirela could get a good education, Lyuba thought. If only someone could cure her speech impediment. If only she, the girl’s mother, could give Mirela a better life, a better future. But that would never happen!
Lyuba dismissed the baker’s concern, pushed her daughter forward, and together they climbed the stairs to their apartment.
The market was lively the next morning; it always was. All the regulars were there, Lyuba noted. The old women sitting on the curb selling herbs and spices. The cigarette salesman making his rounds with his wares displayed on a silver platter. The other gypsy women with whom she rarely spoke. Shoppers haggling noisily with the merchants. Odors from overfilled trash dumpsters. Cars honking, workers shouting as they unloaded crates of fruits and vegetables. A typical day.
A group of foreigners was gathered near one of the stalls, attracted to the handmade Troyan ceramic pots, the rose water perfumes and soaps, the wooden religious icons, and the Balkan spices. Easy targets, she thought.
“Haide!” she called to her daughter but Mirela lingered next to a teenager selling battery-operated toy animals spinning around a cardboard box, squeaking and bumping into each other.
One man stood out from the crowd and he seemed different. A banker? Lyuba wondered. He was certainly dressed handsomely. She turned to follow him instead of the tourists, leaving Mirela behind. The man stopped to buy a bag of freshly roasted coffee beans and failed to notice Lyuba when she bumped into him.
Mirela grunted with displeasure when Lyuba pulled her away from the animated toys. On a side street, out of sight from the market, Lyuba checked the wallet she had lifted from the man’s pocket.
It was filled with cash! And not small bills, either. This was a thick wad of hundred-lev notes—more cash than Lyuba had ever seen at one time.
Mirela’s eyes went wide when she saw the money in her mother’s hands, but Lyuba quickly stuffed the cash into a pocket of her dress. She took another glance at the wallet’s contents and then flung it into the street. She grabbed her daughter’s arm and together they hurried away.
In their apartment she arranged all the money on the table and stared at it for several minutes. Money! A lot of money! Enough to buy new clothes, get real food for a change. Maybe even enough cash to rent a larger apartment. Maybe even leave the country and migrate to France where several neighbors had gone years before.
Enough money to give Mirela the life she deserved.
Lyuba looked at her daughter. Mirela had dropped to the floor and was playing with an old ragdoll, a keepsake from when Lyuba, herself, was a girl. Mirela was all she had. She would do anything for her daughter. Anything.
Lyuba gathered up the hundred-lev notes and put them in a plastic bag. She went to the refrigerator and got down on her knees. Clawing with broken fingernails, she worked loose a cracked floor tile. She carefully placed the bag under the floor, next to the bags of jewelry she had hidden over the years. She replaced the tile and stepped on it, making sure it sat tightly in place.
The next morning, Lyuba squeezed Mirela’s shoulder gently, arousing her daughter with tenderness. As Mirela slowly opened her eyes, Lyuba stood up straight.
“Haide! Come along now, we have to get moving.” Today they would go to the square near the cathedral, she told herself. They hadn’t been there this week. But maybe, just maybe, the baker would offer them banitsa pastries fresh from the oven when they walked past the bakery.
# # #
Ellis Shuman is an American-born Israeli author, travel writer, and book reviewer. His writing has appeared in The Jerusalem Post, The Times of Israel, The Oslo Times, and The Huffington Post. He is the author of The Virtual Kibbutz, Valley of Thracians, and The Burgas Affair. https://ellisshuman.blogspot.com/ https://twitter.com/ellisshuman