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Winner

By Atanas Slavov / February 9, 1984



The first days of February are the depths of winter in Bulgaria, and that year was bitterly cold. The sharp wind blew the fallen snow to dust across the streets and up our sleeves and into our faces as we approached the city's central railway station. My sister Maria was with me. She had been a concert singer, but after father went to prison for anti-Stalinist activity, the only job she could get was to teach music in a primary school in a gypsy suburb, so her evenings were free. Lilliana couldn't come, for she worked in another town as a construction engineer and each day got up at 5:30, earlier than the first bus, to cross the forest and catch the train, returning at 8 p.m. to plunge into bed and then start the whole thing again. I was 23 in 1953 and a student.

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The square around the station was dimly lighted by the few streetlamp bulbs remaining unbroken. There was no taxi to be seen, it was late, and I wondered how we would manage it. But that was not the most important thing after all.

The tracks were deserted and dark when the train arrived. I had the feeling that it was coming from nowhere and no one would be coming off it.

We didn't see him through the windows or at the doors. Then a man shouted, ''Is there anyone here to meet Vasil Slavov?''

I ran along the coaches.

An elderly man in a railway worker's uniform was holding what seemed like a huge bundle of rags on one of the platforms. The bundle moved and I heard an inarticulate voice. My father's cap was on top of the bundle. And a pair of eyes.

But it was the voice that shook me. I realized that this was my father and he must have said, ''Nasko, it's me!'' But that was merely intuition on my part.

I helped him down and held him tightly against me. He couldn't stand on his feet. He was twice as small as he used to be, light as an empty eggshell. His teeth were gone.

''I'm not surprised you don't recognize me.''

He was calm and must have been happy as every winner is, but Maria was crying hysterically.

''I can't look at him.'' He had been in prison for almost seven years and now she didn't recognize him - didn't want to recognize her father in this object.

His voice must have shocked her, too. It cracked like a broken branch. Some of the sounds burst loud as a shot, and others were not reproduced at all. He had sung a lot with my mother, chiefly old Russian romantic songs. He had brilliant control. If Maria had become a professional singer, it was precisely because of that rich voice.

''Stop talking!'' I said, tears running down my face at last. ''Everything will be all right.''

I thrust the bundle of his belongings into Maria's hands and took him in my arms. He didn't like this; he was embarrassed and mumbled something, or maybe laughed, but I didn't pay any attention to him. That was the only way to take him out of the station.

There was nothing but the fresh fallen snow on the taxi stand. But we saw a friend of mine who was coming back from a party. A lively and good-hearted chap, he grasped the situation better than I. He ran for some kind of transportation and in a short time came back with an old open cab pulled by a shivering horse.

''I am not surprised you don't recognize me!'' my father repeated as he sank into the back seat, and this time I caught the notes of victory in his voice. We started our journey back across the deserted city, the snow blew under the worn-out cover of the cab, and our hearts grew warmer as the dark buildings disappeared one after another behind us.

When I come to think of it, the magic of this moment was not only in his returning alive. By being embarrassed over how he looked, he managed to erase in one stroke the horror of the past. He had sustained his sense of decency. He was proud we didn't recognize him in the shadow of a man he had become in prison. He still was more than that.