(Fourth in a five part series)
We followed Lilyana back to the street. This time I noticed tobacco leaves drying in stalls out on the streets. The leaves were turning brown and shriveling up. A few donkey carts were parked in front of homes. Their rubber tires were the only sign that the twentieth century had made it way to this village. I remember thinking the tires seemed oddly out of place.
As we passed homes, Lilyana told us who lived in each one. "Liubomir lives in this house," she said pointing to one across the street. There was a black cloth tied to the gate. "His wife passed away ten days ago." Then as if to put her death in some kind of context she said, "She was old. It was her time to go."
Ivan followed us with his dog which he gripped tightly by the collar. As we approached the edge of town the dog broke free and headed off to one of the tobacco files. Ivan chased after it.
Lilyana sighed. "He loves that dog so much. It's his only friend."
"Aren't their other children his age for him to play with?" I said.
"No, not here. Not in this village." Lilyana said. "Ivan and I are the youngest people here. Everyone else is over sixty. Most are in their seventies." Lilyana pointed to a house near the tobacco field. "There was an old widow that lived in that house Her name was Ivanka. She was my mother's best friend. She died two years ago. Now the house is empty." She motioned toward the other homes with her hand. "In another ten, fifteen years, most of these homes will be empty."
Years later I would learn that there are hundreds of small villages scattered throughout Southeastern Europe. Most of their population is over sixty and as the old people die, the villages die too.
As if reading my thought Lilyana continued. "The young people leave because there is no work. They go to bigger towns or leave the country entirely. There is no reason for them to stay."
"And why are you and Ivan here?" I asked.
Lilyana told us about an abusive marriage she left. "I had nowhere to go except here," she said.
We were walking up the side of a hill towards rows of grapevines. The vines were scattered and lying on the ground. Lilyana stopped at the first row. "These first two rows belong to our family," she said. She lifted up some leaves and picked large cluster of green grapes. She placed them in a bucket she had brought. I looked under leaves and helped pick some grapes. In a few minutes we had filled the bucket. "Years ago these vines produced lots of grapes," she said. "But now no one cares for them."
She stopped and looked up the hill. "See those tow rows near the top?" she said. Near the top of the hill were two rows of grape vines. Their leaves were dark and plants well cared for. An old couple was caring for the vines. "They get many grapes," she said. "They care for their vines.""Do you like living out here?" I said.
"Most of the time," she said. "I like the quiet." She scanned the fields and called for Ivan. A minute later Ivan and his dog came running toward the hill. "I wish Ivan had someone his age to play with."
"What about school?"
"The nearest school is 15 kilometers away. There is no bus that goes there. I teach Ivan at home." She sighed. "Sometimes I think about going back to my husband but then I remember the abuse. Maybe after my mother dies, I'll take Ivan to Plovdiv or Burgas and start over."
Ivan came running off with his dog. He grabbed my companion's hand and said, "Race you to the top?"
My companion, not understand what he had said looked back at me to translate.
"He wants to race you to the top of the hill," I said.
Ivan and my companion took off to the top. The dog followed closely behind, it's pink tongue hanging out of his mouth. We watched them run to the top. Ivan won and threw his arms in the air. He said something to my companion but that I knew he didn't understand. I was too far away to translate.
I picked up the bucket of grapes and walked with Lilyana to the top of the hill.
"It's beautiful here," I said. "There are no signs of the modern world. No power lines, roads or anything."
"Beautiful but hard," Lilyana said. "Everyone grows their own food to survive. The government pension the old people receive are worthless."
We reached the top of the hill. Ivan ran up to me. "Tell your fiend I want to race him down the hill," he said.
"Ivan says he's going to beat you to the bottom of the hill," I said. My companion looked tired. The run to the top of the hill had worn him out. Ivan tugged at his hand and they broke into a full run down the hill in a cloud of dust.
I looked around. To the south the hills grew into mountains. To the north the hills flattened and turned to planes. On the horizon was something that looked like a thin, sliver ribbon.
"What's that silver line?" I said.
"That's the highway that connects Sofia and Plovdiv," she said. "The one blot on your unspoiled view."
We walked down the hill toward toward Ivan and my companion. An old man drove a donkey cart past the grape vines. He waved as he passed us.
We headed back to the village.
(Coming Monday: Part V: The Conclusion.)