I was standing on the stairs in front of the hospital, staring at the snow. Right next to the staircase there was a little garden with a tin coffee kiosk. At the front of the cement platform was a small table with two chairs. The snowflakes were falling down on the cement and melting. The doctors had forbidden me to drink coffee.
“No coffee,” Doctor Penkov had said to me. “No coffee, no cigarettes and no alcohol. I’m serious.”
I went, got a cup of coffee and sat on the damp chair.
Svetlio’s parents came out of the entrance of the hospital. Svetlio and I were in the same room. They had come to visit him just two days ago, on Sunday. Then both Djendo and I joked about how when they discharge him from the hospital, we will find him a bride. Djendo Nanchev, the third person in the room, got heated up, sat on the bed and started explaining to him how women can be divided into two categories – the pretty ones and the good ones. And because he personally had tried both, he definitely advised Svetlio to find a good girl. Not pretty, but good. With years the pretty ones get old and ugly and the combination between an ugly and evil woman is deadly. Why do you think he had checked in the hospital, eh? Why? Otherwise he was as strong as a horse. Svetlio would lie there, bandaged yp to the neck, entangled in hoses, silent and would try to smile.
I didn’t call out to Svetlio’s mother and father. They came down to the sidewalk and walked to the trolley station. The father was holding the bag with Svetlio’s baggage. Was the falcon feather in there, too?
I took a deep breath and looked around. Then I lit a cigarette. Somewhere down in my heart it started to hurt. It felt like someone scratched me with a blade. I ignored the pain. I watched the crows that were walking around the brown leaves in the little garden and I wanted to tell them that I was about to call the falcon. Pavel Yakimov once told me that the presence of only one falcon could chase away all birds in a 200-yard radius.
“I will call Tuyuk Kisiin,” I said to the crows, “and you will disappear, you will sink into the autumn.”
Crows, those doves of the autumn…
I lit a second cigarette and finished the coffee. I hadn’t had coffee for three weeks. They made nice coffee here. Last week, when the weather was still warm, our group, me, Djendo Nanchev and Svetlio slipped out of our room, just as we were, still in our pajamas, we came and sat in this cafe. There was an occasion – Svetlio was turning nineteen. We got three little plastic bottles of mineral water, clinked glasses and drank them down in one fell swoop, elbows up, as if we were drinking rakia. I told them about my daughter who studies on the other side of the world. How we speak on Skype, how in her photography class she had an assignment to take a photo that captured a man’s presence, but without the man himself in it. I hadn’t talked about my daughter for a long time, so I was eager to tell them everything that was on my mind. How I didn’t manage to tell her my idea –well, just take photo of a stream of cigarette smoke, I think that would work – because I landed in the hospital.
“And in the spring, in the spring my daughter along with about ten other students, went to San Francisco,” I continued. On a bus, to the West Coast. I don’t know how many miles they went. San Francisco was the most beautiful city – with those hills, and the large boulevards going up and down them. Up. And down. I had some rough pictures in my head from old action movies, and while I was telling them it seemed as if I had just seen San Francisco, as if I had been on that trip, too. And I told them another thing, how one evening – during the trip – I got nervous, and I called my daughter on the phone.
“Where are you now, sweetie?”
Her voice from the other side of the world sounded incredibly clear, as if she were right beside me.
“Now? Well, right now we are passing through some little town, hold on while I ask about the name. I got it! A little town called Mendocino.”
A little town called Mendocino. A little town called Mendocino.
“A little town called Mendocino,” I said, “Cheers!” And then the three of us again drank from our little bottles of mineral water as if we were kings.
Djendo Nanchev talked about what huge debts his company had racked up without him. He and his wife didn’t live together anymore, and he had found a blonde girlfriend. Young and blonde. Yet, he had twins, seniors. What can we say, life! Djendo looked grumpy in the brown night for a moment, but then he waved his hand dismissively and snorted.
“Here’s to the young girlfriends!”
We asked Svetlio whether he had a girlfriend. There was some Petya, but she had started working in a café. And they hadn’t seen each other lately. Then he went silent. And then he started talking about falcons. He told us about how he had found a story by chance, but what was its name again, I think it was “The Hunting Falcon” from a little book by Rady Tzarev. That was a long time ago, back when he was in ninth grade. He had been sick, lying in bed at home, when he randomly grabbed the little old book from the library. You know, with brown covers, dilapidated. Otherwise, he didn’t read books. But he read this one. And from then on, he became terribly keen on falcons. He wanted to have a trained falcon. See, that was his dream. You whistle and the falcon flies from the skies.
And Svetlio put two fingers to his mouth and whistle. The people on the street started looking around.
“Here’s to the falcons,” yelled Djendo Nanchev. And I was already searching in my phone for Pavel Yakimov’s number.
“Hello,” I said, “can you talk?”
“Hi. Fire away.”
“Listen, I’m stuck in the hospital. I’m in Aleksandrovska Hospital. And I have a favor to ask.”
“Can you come here tomorrow to the hospital? With Tuyuk Kisiin.”
Suddenly Nurse Malcheva leaned over our heads.
“I’m going there, looking for you – the room is empty. And where do you think those vagabonds are! Hey, what are you drinking, you’re not drinking rakia, right? Go upstairs right now! You’re like little children. “
That night I couldn’t fall asleep until late. Some time ago I had written a journalistic piece about the falconers. For it I had contacted the manager of the falcon association Pavel Yakimov, and he took me to their base in Sofia’s suburbs. The falcons were living on the premises of the former Socialist-era -co-operative farm. Тhere were six birds, the buzzard Harry, Urta, Snowy, Squinty, Marahute, but Tuyuk Kisiin was the most beautiful. Pavel Yakimov let me put the big leather glove on my left arm, then Tuyuk Kisiin stepped on the glove. Pavel, on the other hand, took the buzzard Harry and with one other boy, all three of us, we went out in the fields to let them fly. I walked on the grass with Tuyuk Kisiin on my left arm, looking at it intently. The bells on its legs jingled. It was stern, pretty and calm like an eastern princess.
Three times, it flew off my glove, circled around in the sky and landed again on my arm. Pavel told me how in Turkmenistan, in the desert there is something like an academy for falconers. Every year, for two weeks falconers from all over the world go to the elders in the camp and take an exam. The elders sit on the sand, with crossed legs and wrapped in thick robes, while on their elbows, grabbing the sleeves of the bathrobes with their talons, the falcons are standing frozen and impenetrable. One whistle sends the falcon into the air, one whistle returns it.
“Tuyuk,” I repeated to the bird, counting the meters to the premises. Twenty meters, ten meters, the door, the room. And here, I’m taking off the glove and here – Pavel takes Tuyuk Kisiin from me.
The hours of the next day, Friday, dragged like a caravan of camels, humpbacked and monotonous. Breakfast, the doctor’s visit. Doctor Penkov, the professor and a few other medics, stayed for a long time over Svetlio’s bed and spoke to one another in Latin. Noon came, the sky through the window was leaden and grim. Djendo Nanchev and I read all the newspapers, I went to the bathroom to smoke a cigarette. My phone rang at three-thirty. Djendo and Svetlio were asleep. I went quickly into the hall.
“It’s me. I’m upstairs, in the yard,” Pavel Yakimov said.
I quickly went back into the room and shook Svetlio’s shoulder.
“Svetlio,” I said. “Come to see a falcon.”
Svetlio woke up. My words reached his mind. He opened his eyes wide.
“It’s down there, in the yard. Come on.”
Djendo got up, too.
“What’s going on?”
I explained quickly that outside Pavel Yakimov was waiting for us with Tuyuk Kisiin.
We opened the door, looked around like thieves in a cartoon and went to the elevator.
Tuyuk Kisiin stood on the leather glove, which was slipped on Pavel’s arm, and looked at us wisely and calmly with its amber eyes. Svetlio tripped over his slippers and almost fell. He reached out his hand and caressed the falcon’s head without any fear. Tuyuk Kisiin didn’t flinch.
“This boy wants to become a falconer,” I said. “When we get out, I’m going to send him to you.”
“Deal,” said Pavel Yanchev. “I need more people”
“Can I…”, stuttered Svetlio, “take one feather? From the falcon.”
Pavel caressed Tuyuk Kisiin on the wing a couple of times and then handed Svetlio one white feather, lightly speckled with brown at the bottom.
“I’m gonna go. With that traffic and all…”
“That’s OK,” I said. “Thank you, Pavle.”
Pavel shrugged his wide shoulders of an ex-oarsman, settled the little white felt hat – a gift from Turkmen falconers – on his hand and then went to the exit with Tuyuk Kisiin on his left arm.
That was on Friday. Today is Tuesday.
The girl from the café came, wiped off my table and cleaned the ash-tray. Her shirt was too short, her waist was naked and her sleek skin was goose-bumped.
I stood up and stopped on the sidewalk looking for a taxi. Finally a yellow and shaky cab with green eyes slowed down and stopped next to me. I got in.
“Did you run away from the hospital?”
“How did you know?”
I turned around and looked at the driver. His face was rugged like a rock. He was my age.
“Where is that?”
“I’m kidding. Drive to Bulgaria Boulevard.”