They took him across the mountains to Gorna Dhjumaya where his arrival was met by the same pathological slaughterers whose names had been on everyone’s lips that year—the year an undeclared, loathsome war pitted neighbor versus neighbor. And it is said that these thugs then began to assess his verdict. But he wasn’t about to have any of it. 

“Me,” he said, “you don’t sentence. Me, you either shoot or you let go.”

Who can say if that’s how it really happened? Maybe it’s not all true, but it’s certainly faithful to the truth. 

[. . .]

Sheytanov must have known that exactly two weeks prior to his own capture, the poet Geo Milev had already been to court and that his lawyer had astutely not shown up on time which necessitated him to act as his own defendant—that much was written in the newspapers. The case itself had been absurd: a poet on trial for writing a poem. And the people in the dust-filled courtroom had not listened to a single word the poet said—that everything he’d written was in the name of humanity, brotherhood, and love and peace on earth, that this was an idea anchoring his entire body of work, and that the real question at hand for the Bulgarian court was: would it convict a poet for his words? But when has a court ever listened to a poet? He was convicted, and it was then, in the middle of May, beyond the Balkan mountains and amidst the cautiously verdant forests above Kilifarevo that Sheytanov likely first read the headline inside that rag known as Utro: “Guilty: Author-Provocateur of September Convicted for Instigating Class Division and Hatred!” And perhaps while reading that same paper he had also learned what the poet’s sentence had been, and who knows, maybe he had simply groaned that a year in jail along with a twenty thousand-leva fine was the lesser of two evils. The twenty thousand wouldn’t be a problem to get hold of, just as the five thousand leva bail before it hadn’t and he’d brought it to Mila, the poet’s wife, when they’d first arrested her husband back in January. Mila had run around in despair then, making the rounds at all the publishers her husband worked with, the bookstores and newspaper stands whose owners owed him money—getting a hundred leva here, two hundred there—all the while growing disheartened with the realization she’d never actually come up with the full amount. Sheytanov brought her the accursed five-thousand leva in the afternoon: ten lousy bills the color of dirty violet . . . Her eyes, behind frames thin as a spider’s web had looked distraught, and he, seeing her so scared, had lied for the first time in his life. He told her everything would be all right. But they both knew the ten worthless pieces of paper solved nothing, that the bail money would not bail the poet out, that January was not the end but only the beginning . . .

The twenty thousand in question now didn’t seem like a big deal, either, and the year in jail . . . well, what’s a year in jail? Nothing. He’d done it.

“He got off easy,” he said to Mariola and ditched the paper. “What’s a year compared to eight! The prosecutor and the judge must be fans . . .”

Indeed. The prosecutor, one Manyo Genkov, really had tried his best: instead of asking for the minimum three-year sentence he had pleaded for one year, and the judge had groaned with hasty relief and banged his gavel. And as he sat there amid the Kilifarevo forests, he likely wished for nothing more than to have been inside that courtroom, slinging jokes at the poet to cheer him up, shouting: “Milev! I disagree with the sentence. This man is making a mockery of your work. Only a year for that poem?! For shame! These people aren’t taking you seriously, Milev. You should’ve been hit with the maximum for writing that fine poem!” Or something in that vein.

But who could have possibly told him that while he read the now three-day-old newspaper, the poet had already been summoned for an “informal inquiry” in connection with his now seemingly settled case? And how could he have known that the poet wasn’t summoned to the courthouse as he should have been—but to the Police Directorate? 

That was that.

[. . .]

In late afternoon on the fifteenth of May, nineteen twenty five, the poet’s wife and her sister made their way to the Police Directorate right next to Luvov Most, Lions’ Bridge—a white-stone building with a pentagram above it, yet to be filled with ghosts, vengeful vampires, karakonjuli, and angels with blood-drenched wings. They brought the poet’s coat, because they’d sent him off with nothing more than a handkerchief at dawn, and it had been a frigid day this fifteenth of May. It had been so cold, in fact, that both women’s fingers had frozen inside their lace gloves—as if in that spring day winter had returned.

It goes without saying that the women weren’t at all allowed in, and while they stood outside and the murk over Sofia descended, they’d caught sight of the poet behind a window on the top floor.

But Sheytanov, up in the Kilifarevo hills, had no way of knowing any of this.

The poet too had no way of knowing the last thing he would ever pen was his signature acknowledging receipt of a three hundred-leva loan from the secretary of the “Invalid” Union of Officers. Which he would never repay . . .