THE WOMAN WHO SANG
Translated from the Bulgarian by Ekaterina Petrova
Everyone who had ever heard her sing thought she was suffering. But she wasn’t.
“That poor woman,” they said every time they came to collect mineral water from the springs across from the Central Market Hall. Then, they tightly screwed the caps back on, put the smaller bottles into string-net or plastic bags, picked up the larger containers by their handles, and headed home. The woman’s song always accompanied them to the tram stop, kept them company while they waited for the tram, and gently caressed their ears before its doors closed. They went home and, if they had anyone to tell, they never missed the chance to say, “That woman who sings, she was by the springs again. She sings and sings, like an angel. What sorrow is she suffering from?”
They all wondered but nobody ever asked her. Even when she was taking a short break between the arias, they didn’t dare to approach her. She didn’t look dirty or shabby. On the contrary, she was clean and tidy. She was rather short and chubby, had a rectangular nose, and wore a brown hat and a big brown jacket wrapped around her. She didn’t look crazy either, but people still avoided as much as glancing in her direction. They listened to her singing while the water flowed into their bottles, and when they headed home, they always made sure to go around and avoid the fountain she was leaning against. Some preferred to come in the afternoon or the evening, when she wasn’t there. It wasn’t that they didn’t like opera, maybe they did, although they couldn’t be sure, but the woman bothered them. She wasn’t doing anything to them personally, but she just wouldn’t stop singing.
They never admitted that when they headed out to get water in the morning, her voice greeted them at least a block before they reached the springs—it weaved around the buildings, wrapped itself around the trees, permeated into their clothes, their skin, and got all the way through to their hearts, which filled with longing and could no longer fit inside their bodies.
People didn’t understand the meaning of her songs’ words, but they made them uneasy anyway. In the early mornings, when the air was still sharp and the day ahead looked the same as the day before, the woman’s voice seemed to be trying to convince them this world was capable of wonder as well. That there was joy and excitement, that sorrow could be happiness in disguise, and all they had to do was dare to undress it in order to see its body, to touch it, to get to know it, and to love it. They couldn’t, of course, explain all that in words, but the woman infuriated them. What was she doing anyway, singing to her heart’s content, right here among the springs, from which water never stopped flowing? Did they not have enough worries of their own that they had to listen to hers too? If she was sick, why didn’t she pour herself some water and drink it, and it would make her feel better? If she suffered from a sorrow, why didn’t she just talk about it and make it stop hurting in this way? But no, what was she doing instead? Singing songs! And that powerful voice, so sonorous and pure. Like a brand new crystal glass of the kind you save only for special occasions. But those came rarely; most days, it was plastic water containers and disposable bottles.
On the other hand, they thought to themselves as they tried to go around her while carrying bottles full of water, it was a good thing she sang—otherwise she’d scare the wits out of them. In the morning, the springs and the entire square were enveloped in steam because of the hot water, weren’t they? They couldn’t see much further than their own noses. What if they happened to run straight into her and she tried to tell them about her sorrow and why she stood here almost every morning—presumably harmless, but who knows, with that voice of an angel, she might actually turn out to be quite the devil?
After some time, those who had talked about the woman and complained she was bothering them with her songs, eventually stopped coming to the springs. Although they drank mineral water regularly, their legs started to give in, their lower back hurt, and they felt dizzy. They stayed home and looked out the window. Every day resembled the day before. Whenever they thought back to the past, the first thing that came to their minds were those mornings when they used to go to the springs across from the Central Market Hall. Back then, it now seemed to them, they used to float several feet above the pavement, the steam used to envelop them while the sunrays passed through it, life used to be wonderful, and there used to be a woman who sang.