Words can dance

An illustration for the book (author: Violeta Apostolova-Leti)

A story by Desislava Kamenova about her Vlach-speaking great-grandmother Lucana

Dessislava Kamenova

The author is a lawyer, has a PhD in mediation from Sofia University, and has two collections of short stories – “Lucana” and “Gavril”. This story was submitted to the blog “Bridge of Friendship” by Dessislava Kamenova.

First they are born in the heart and seek a way through the throat to find their freedom. There are also some who search in vain for a way out. They remain forever in the heart, as prisoners of a longing or a gurning. Sometimes we forget them, but, like irritable children, they remember themselves when you least expect it. 

I opened the window. I let the world in. I made the bed. For days, I’ve been searching for the one photo I have as a reminder of her. The best man I ever knew. This is my great-grandmother. Her name is Lucana. I will always love that name. I’ve never met another person with that name besides her – Grandma Lucana. 

I never met her – I relive her to this day. A small, skinny, hunchbacked woman who liked to have two or three sips of wine in the evening after dinner, and that too in secret. The doctors had forbidden her to drink, and this seemed to be her only pleasure. When you go to the doctor, they don’t ask you, when they forbid you to drink, if that’s not your only pleasure. They didn’t ask her either, and I saw every evening what a pleasure it was to have two sips of homemade red wine. We drank it, my sister and I. Back then we drank it like medicine to get more blood so words could dance.  

“Words can dance (Cuvintele pot dansa),” Grandma Lucana used to say. What was bad for Grandma Lucana’s health was good for ours. At the time I didn’t wonder why for some it was like that and for others it was different.  The ritual with the bottle hidden behind the curtain continued, and I imagined I was drinking the drink that would give me health. 

Grandma Lucana’s days were filled with housework. She seemed to be the only person who stuck in my mind as the “man-obligation” – with the only right taken – who had two sips of red wine with dinner. She never talked about herself. I don’t even remember if she put “I” in his sentences. 

Her first sentence was usually, “I’m going to go do something.” (O să mă duc sa fac ceva) I never heard her speak Bulgarian. I would speak to her in Bulgarian, she would reply in Vlach. This is a language I associate with the most selfless love on earth and it has a name – LUCANA. I will never forget it. It is sad, but it is in my heart. 

I found out she died on the way to the village. My father came to pick me up from school camp. I had dreamed of a wedding the night before. To this day, I remember the dream as truth and I remember the truth, Grandma Lucana’s funeral, as a dream. The intense grief reversed the places of reality and dream. The first thing I did was go to her room. I rummaged through her clothes closet and found the handkerchief with pennies. She gave her pension to my grandparents, but she always kept the change from her bread in that handkerchief. That was our little secret – pennies wrapped in a man’s handkerchief, so my sister and I could buy wafers.  

To teach you to love – that was the penny handkerchief. Those small, insignificant facts of human life that teach us to be kind, to love and to trust. I continued to stay in her room and asked to be left alone. Then I went to see her. She seemed taller and had a calm face. I spent the whole night next to her. I even asked to be left alone with her for a while. The grandmothers who kept watch during the night were very, very puzzled: “Isn’t the girl staying afraid?”. My grandmother told them to leave me. They left me and went into the yard to see if the other grandmothers were cooking. We wanted to talk. 

I was talking, and her hand was still so cold. That’s when I realised I couldn’t work miracles – her hand stayed cold. They had put a red thread crisscrossed all over her body and a safety pin so she wouldn’t turn into a vampire and the devil would take her soul. That’s when I sensed that Death had a scent. That’s when a part of me grew. That’s when I saw I had no power. Then they made me sweep the room they took her out of. An old Vlach custom that was supposed to drive the spirit out of the house. 

I had to close the door after they took her out. So she wouldn’t come back. Me, who was never going to drive her from my heart. The child who didn’t fear death because she had so much love for Grandma Lucana. To this day we still talk. I pray not to God, but to Grandma Lucana, in Vlach. My prayer ends: “Fetili tele sunt bine! (Your daughters are fine) I’ll see you.”

Photo: The only photo of Lucana, which is preserved today (source: Dessislava Kamenova)

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