Pay Me by Zdravka Evtimova

A story of appetite, recommended by Kelly Luce

AN INTRODUCTION BY KELLY LUCE

Why does Zdravka Evtimova’s work make me want to swear?

It was on a terrace overlooking the Black Sea in Sozopol, Bulgaria that I first met Zdravka but it was on the plane to Sofia that I first encountered her fiction. The story I read was funny and terribly dark, the humor matter-of-fact rather than clever; there was nothing self-consciously cerebral or cute about it. At one point while reading I exclaimed, “Oh fuck yeah!” way too loud, waking up the woman in the seat next to me.

Immediately upon meeting Zdravka on that terrace, drunk on jet lag, nerves, and awe, I told her this story. She didn’t smile. She nodded politely and said thank you. Maybe it wasn’t the first time she’d heard such a thing.

Zdravka and I were part of a small group of writers and translators who’d been brought to the coast to participate in the 2010 Sozopol Fiction Seminars. The seminar included daily workshops — one for the five writers working in Bulgarian, one for the five of us working in English. Zdravka was the only Bulgarian in the English workshop. She made a living as a translator and had published a number of story collections and novels already. We Americans hadn’t heard of her. I would like to change that.

Walt Disney would have no idea what to do with this woman. And that is precisely why I love her.

“Pay Me” is classic Zdravka Evtimova. It’s the story of Maria, a woman of insatiable appetite who works odd jobs in her small town. She seems to her boss, a man of great means but little imagination, to have come from nowhere, and slowly, he falls under the spell of this “thin, long thread of a woman” in too-large secondhand clothes. This is not a fairy tale, and yet there’s something both secret-princess and witchlike about Maria. Walt Disney would have no idea what to do with this woman. And that is precisely why I love her.

Like all great characters, Maria is a force, a type of gravity that bends the story around her. She is mysterious yet wholly satisfying, surprising at every turn to everyone but herself. She is fierce, cruel, and lends new meaning to the phrase “give zero fucks.” She is concerned with survival, with desire, with the visceral and practical, with how the world can be of use.

We need more female characters like this.

Every time I read Zdravka’s stories I reflect on the power her female characters have, how unapologetic they are, how particularly corporeal they are while also giving the impression of otherworldiness. If there’s any kind of pixie dust on them, it’s outfitted with razor teeth and talons.

Oh fuck yeah.

Kelly Luce
Author of Three Scenarios in Which Hana Sasaki Grows a Tail and Pull Me Under

Pay Me by Zdravka Evtimova

Theo watched the thin, long thread of a woman. The more he studied her face, the more he suspected she was not all there. The most amazing thing about her was her appetite. She constantly ate. They called her Maria; damn it, such a beautiful name and such a big mouth. She worked part-time at the local library, washed staircases and mowed the lawns in front of the wealthy men’s villas, using an electric mower as loud as a gun. She cleaned the important ladies’ houses, gave baths to the old women from the small town. Theo had heard rumors she was saving up to pay for her tuition at the local college.

She was different a fortnight ago. He caught glimpses of her, a cup of coffee in hand, staring at a lanky slovenly character. The man worked for Theo, repaired lathes and cutting machines, constantly complaining: too much dust, too hot, almost no money. Theo fired him.

Theo was intrigued by her; it was her big mouth that fascinated him. He was building a dyers’ workshop in town, and he hired her to clean the place. It was hard to believe how rapidly her hands moved, her fingertips neon signs glimmering intoxicatingly before his eyes. He underpaid her and she did not protest, didn’t even bother to count the money. Her eyes on his face, she asked, “Can I pick the wild sorrels around the dyers’ workshop?”

“Yes. You can,” Theo said. “But you’ll pay me five leva for my sorrels, as a matter of fact, ten leva.”

She didn’t respond to that, didn’t invite him to go drown himself.

She had turned around as if he was not there. Even worse, he stood nearby, a manure heap at her feet: nothing more, nothing less. Well, he was Theo, the man who owned half the houses in town, all fertile fields, and he had opened a dyers’ workshop.

“Hey. Wait,” Theo shouted. Her blouse intrigued him. He knew she’d bought it for fifty cents from his second-hand shop. The thing was too big for her, but her back looked very active in it, a snake twisting and turning within the confines of the huge hems. So far no man or woman had dared to turn their back on Theo.

“Nobody has introduced you to me,” her big mouth said. “I don’t see any reason why you should call me ‘hay.’ One should glance at a manure heap for fear that he might step in it. She trampled on his shadow, and her back, already a grown-up snake, retreated into the fog.

He saw her floundering in those enormous dresses from his second-hand shop, a green back on her back. At times she rummaged inside it, her fingers surprisingly thin and nimble, extracting nettles or sorrels, dock leaves and lettuces. She grazed on them. She stuffed sorrels in her mouth, munching, plucking another handful, then another.

Theo pursued a new hobby: he shadowed her. He watched her walking away from the library in a new one-leva dress from his second- to twenty-second hand shop; squatting by the stone wall, pulling and plucking nettles; pushing them into her green bag, then chewing raw dark-green leaves. A week passed, the sorrels grew coarse and hard, and she plucked horseradish, then goose-foot. He saw her picking grasses, masticating, chewing the cud until the first strawberries were ripe. Then she did not carry the green bag on her back; she clutched a crate with strawberries instead, gobbling fruit like thunder. His neighbors said she worked well, cleaned for many families, washed the sick, talked to old women from the village for hours on end, dug their gardens, weeded flowerbeds, and planted green beans or peppers. They gave her strawberries. She didn’t want money. She looked around all the time as if she was searching for somebody.

Then the cherries were ripe.

That grumbling character she’d been staring at had vanished without a trace. Theo had a nagging doubt in the back of his mind: Maria started gorging on green leaves the day the shabby blighter beat it for some unknown place.

Theo owned the cherry orchard; he’d bought it dirt cheap, then he built huge walls that encircled the land and the trees. Nettles sprouted in the shadows which she, a stick in a bleached dress, picked and wolfed day and night.

“I want you to pick cherries,” Theo said one day as Maria thrust a bunch of nettles into her green bag. “Twenty leva per day plus all fruit you can eat.”

On the following day she came in a T-shirt from his shop, shorts from his shop, her thin legs a pair of nails driven in her threadbare shoes which, he was sure, pinched her feet terribly. He hid behind the wall and watched. In the course of two hours Maria had not stopped eating; her lips turned bluish with cherry juice, and he was convinced she wouldn’t do the job he’d hired her for. He was wrong. At a certain point, her fingers plunged into the foliage and her body stuck to the branches like resin. In the afternoon, Theo couldn’t believe his eyes when he saw thirty crates of the cherries she’d picked.

“I’ll pay you,” he said.

She didn’t look up.

“You said ‘all the fruit you can eat.’” Her eyes were on her old shoes. “We agreed.”

“We did,” he said.

“I’ll eat now,” she said.

Theo sat in the shadow as she squatted on her heels, grabbed at a crate of cherries and ate, ate, ate as if she were a plant louse, a silkworm, her endless throat about to guzzle the whole orchard, the tree roots, the stones, the leaves, and the clouds above them. She chewed for an hour, then chewed more. Her mouth was black with the cherries, and her hands and elbows were crimson. Without warning, she jumped to her feet, vigorous, strong, as if she had just caught a glimpse of the orchard. She was a tapeworm that had pumped a ton of fruit into her flat belly. Theo thought, now I know. When the lanky character, dark like dried mud, hung around town, Maria didn’t rummage for food; a cup of coffee was about all she’d had for breakfast.

“Pay me,” she said.

He gave her fifteen leva.

“Give me five leva more,” she said.

“You gobbled a load of my fruit.”

“We cut a deal. Twenty leva per day and all I can eat.”

“You ate too much,” he said. “Come again tomorrow.”

When Theo checked the orchard on the following day, he found her in another cherry tree, her mouth already black, her hands, forearms, and elbows red. He could see no cherries in the trees she had climbed yesterday.… No crates full of cherries in sight.

“How much have you munched so far?” he asked.

Maria didn’t say anything. In the evening, the same thing happened all over again: the cherry tree picked full and clean, the crates neatly arranged by the trunk, and she, glued like a caterpillar to the leaves of another tree, was eating slowly, quietly, obstinately, lost in thought as if solving an equation in nuclear physics.

He paid her ten leva.

On the following day, he found Maria in the largest tree. The sun had just regained its power in the sky, a dash of rays followed by the stupendous full stop of the summer day. When did she clamber up that tree? Had she used a torch to illuminate the cherries, or had she slept up on a big branch? Her mouth was purple, her forearms glowered, blue up to the elbows, and the cherry stones she had spat on the ground glittered like pearls. She was scrawny, a knife stuck in the bough. In the evening, the full crates waited for him, neatly arranged in two parallel rows. Again, she ignored Theo as he stood under the tree inspecting her work. Without warning, her shabby dress slipped down from the branch, crept to the crates and the thing started all over again. She ate, ate, ate as if she was about to devour the night and the dark road, the potholes on it, the old rusty boneshakers, the gray houses in the village, the donkeys tied with chains to metal stakes. He gave her five leva. Maria didn’t say anything as she turned the snake of her back on him and went away, a firefly in the muggy air, a shaving razor that had learned to walk. She had cut him, and he didn’t know where the wound was. He remembered that a month, maybe two months ago, her eyes carved the street, pushed him and hurried, then gave in, meek and tractable, swimming to that repulsive character’s face.

“I ask you to dinner,” Theo told her. He hadn’t intended to ask her anything.

“Tomorrow,” she said.

Her voice, full of stones, hit him in the face.

All of the cherries were already ripe. He paid the women from the nearby villages: they had worked hard, and there was nothing to pick anymore. He fired a worker if she’d snapped a branch, so the orchard was stronger and more beautiful than ever. All clouds and blackbirds flew somewhere else.

In the evening, after the windows of the library darkened, Maria showed up at his door, in the endless dress from his shop, in the same dusty dented shoes that pinched her. Theo had the feeling his stinking warehouse with the sacks of threadbare clothes was advancing on him. She had not bothered to put on makeup, no nail polish. His presence failed to impress her — Theo wasn’t even a manure heap. He was nothing.

“Will you pay for the dinner?” Maria asked.

“Yes.”

“No matter how much I eat?”

“That’s correct.”

The waitress came, a pretty girl Theo had spent a couple of unimpressive nights with.

“Trout with walnuts,” ordered the shaving razor with a big mouth. “Turkey chops with honey, tomato salad, baked peppers, grilled chicken, fish, rye bread, wheat bread, cream salad, ice cream, apple pie, yogurt with almonds and honey for dessert, and some chocolates.”

Theo listened to her, staring, rubbing his ears. They itched.

Then she — very slowly — started to eat: the tomato salad, the turkey chop, the rye bread, fish and almonds, yogurt, the grilled chicken, the ice cream. She didn’t look at him, not once, didn’t glance at the waitress, the couple of unimpressive nights, who was gaping at her awe-struck, terrified. Maria ate on, sipping at the yogurt with honey, then bit into the turkey chop, and the moment the plate in front of her was empty, she pushed it away. She did not talk to Theo, she ignored him; he was a bone of the trout she had just spat out. She ate beautifully, her hands flashing, a needle embroidering flowers on a baby’s scarf in the dusk. The air turned into a tapestry of flames in the wake of her fingers.

After the last plate in front of her was empty, she carefully rubbed her fingers with the napkin and asked, “What do you want from me now?”

“You know what.”

She stood up. He had no idea what she was going to do, turn the snake in her back and the endless dress on him or… he could not imagine what waited behind her or. He didn’t need to know. She started for his house. Young and old gasped for air, praising Theo’s castle, the exquisite white bird, perched on the hill, surrounded on all sides with vineyards, grapes and wild foliage, a magnificent alley and marble benches in the shadows. She walked by his side, paying no attention to him, and that was odd. Theo had spent uninspiring nights with girls from the town, girls whose nationality he didn’t bother to establish. None of them had kept mum like this one. He had fired the dark grumbling blighter; he disappeared, had dried up like a muddy puddle that time erased from the sidewalk. It was on the day he was gone when Maria bought her green back for twenty-five cents from Theo’s notorious shop.

…She took off her twentieth-hand enormous dress, oblivious to everything around her as if she was in her cluttered room or was about to dive into a muddy pool in the river.

The second they finished, she got off the bed, made no fuss, did not dillydally or smoke. She slipped on the huge sleeves, like a noose on her arms, and left. The night was memorable. Indeed it was; the darkness a memory of the shaving razor that had cut him into two halves, her thin hands stitching together a Theo he didn’t know. The warm midnight and her enormous dress made his head spin. On the following day, he went to the library. Maria sat at a battered desk, the green bag full of sorrels and a crate with raspberries like sentinels at her feet, her nose buried in a book. She looked up and said, “What can I do for you?”

The nightfall in her eyes said she had never met him, and she didn’t have an enormous dress that had flowed with her strawberry skin into a little pool at his feet. The indifferent corners of her mouth had forgotten that her hands had sewn something with invisible stitches under his skin and Theo could not extricate himself from it.

“I ask you to dinner tonight.”

This time she ordered mackerel with walnuts, veal stew, cream salad, potato salad, nettle soup, chicken soup, baked peppers, ice cream, chocolates, a pork chop, and an apple pie. The dinner was over and she didn’t wait for him to lead the way to his room. Her dress was of a different color, dusty brown, enormous, hanging like a bleached tatter on the thin rope of her body. His second-hand shop offered the same garments in several shades of brown. The thing slid from her shoulders and parachuted into his territory, landing on the floor. She bent down, touched the shabby fabric and carefully folded it. She hadn’t put on knickers, he saw. Maria stood in front of him, her glowing fish-skin a glowworm in the dusk. The night was so memorable he couldn’t make out if it was a night or a day, a Sunday or a Tuesday, January or July. He went to sleep, and she stood up, dragged on her gown and left, not bothering to look back.

He could not drink his coffee in the corning, did not eat his breakfast. He ran to the library, but it was still closed. He hurried to the small house where he’d been told Maria lived. She was not there. He saw her in the street, the green bag slung over her shoulder, the gigantic dress spilling out a mudslide at her toes.

“I ask you to dinner,” he said.

As usual, she said nothing.

Theo stared at her scraggy neck. Her hands turned the air into sewing cotton and needles; her feet burned the steps he hoped her worn-out shoes would make towards him. She had picked blueberries somewhere and her mouth was purple, her hands glowed red — was it strawberries she’d eaten?

…Theo sat at a small table in the restaurant and the girl with the two unimpressive nights made efforts to talk to him. He consulted his watch, the evening slowly thickened into complete darkness, slow heat for hopeless old men, hot hours. He got up and the girl with her two insignificant nights asked him where he’d go. Did he want her to accompany him? Theo did not answer.

Maria did not show up.

In the morning, she was not in the library. He did not find her in the small house where she lived. Her green bag, full of sorrels and nettles a week ago, lay on the threshold, folded neatly, empty.

Theo felt hungry. His stomach twitched inside him. He ate two smoked veal sandwiches and drank two cartons of milk. His hunger grew. His appetite hit him, he wanted to eat, to devour, to absorb food quickly in large amounts. Maria had gone. Maria’s eyes had run dry. His bones ached from hunger. He ran to the warehouse. The crates were stored there. He bent down, stuffed strawberries into his mouth, gulped them down. He ate. He swallowed fruit, stems and leaves. They had no taste. Maria. After an hour or perhaps two, he accidentally looked up at small stained mirror nailed to the wall.

His hands and forearms were purplish-red, soiled with strawberry pips. A scarlet-brown crust of dried strawberry juice had plastered his nose, lips, and chin.

Maria.

About the Author

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