Fiction | Four Minutes
Nataliya Deleva’s award-winning debut, Four Minutes, portrays one woman’s journey from being abandoned as a baby in an orphanage in Bulgaria under communism, to her struggle to integrate into society as a queer woman. Stand-alone stories pleat into the main narrative’s fragmented, experimental style to explore themes of otherness, alienation and marginalization. Edited by Georgi Gospodinov and translated into English by Izidora Angel, the novel holds up a mirror to a society refusing to face up to how it has treated people on the fringes.
Occasionally, new moms arrived to choose a kid. Those were special days—for the moms, and for us. For the Matrons, too. They woke us up at dawn and bathed us, dressed us in clean clothes, changed the diapers of the littlest ones, mopped the floor of our playroom, and carefully arranged the scattered toys. It had the air of a holiday, like an International Children’s Day that arrived several times a year. Lucky devils we were.
We strained our necks impatiently towards the director’s office where our towering files mounted precariously on her gargantuan desk. But big as it was, the desk still couldn’t fit us all.
Then came the moms and dads. They swung open the doors to our dark corner permeated by the smell of mold and used diapers and summer came rushing onto our toys—smiling, dusty, breathless, sticky. When the stale heat settled back, each of us was torn between the desperate urge to run over to a mom and beg her through tears to pick them and the urge to simply stand there, to demonstrate good manners so as to be liked, just as the Matrons taught us. We stood frozen in place like stone crosses in an old graveyard, waiting, and everything took on a slowed cadence. Only the sound of a pair of flies buzzing over a child’s toilet bowl in the corner embroidered the air.
It was always the mom who stepped forward first; the dad stood against the wall, wringing sweaty hands. The mother. She would choose. The woman unable to bear children of her own had come here to take one of us back into her world. It was the law of the matryoshka—the nesting doll—out of each, a girl is born; the girl grows up and has a girl who one day too becomes a mother, giving birth to another girl who eventually bears a girl. The infinite thread of life renewing the kinfolk. I wondered if the moms came to the Home to save one of us or to find salvation for themselves.
It was always the mother who first braved to meet our pleading eyes and hers always dissolved in water. She approached us cautiously, tiptoeing around each of us, reaching out to caress someone’s disheveled head and with it, generating a gust of life that broke the stale air. That’s how we got our dose of affection: from a stranger, someone else’s mother. And we devoured it like caramel-frosted cake.
Then we watched on as the mother and the director discussed things amongst each other in the office, leafing through the dusty binders piled on that titanic desk, and the weight of it fell on us, crushing our heads like hollowed walnuts.
My treasure chest of things I’ve never possessed
- Pink silk ribbons
- A kaleidoscope
- My childhood photo album*
- Birthday cards from my relatives
- Birthdays or relatives
- My very own shelf in the bathroom for my toothbrush and toothpaste
- Kuma Lisa chocolate
- Pippi Longstocking, Ian Bibian, Alice in Wonderland, Mary Poppins, Classic Bulgarian Fairy Tales I and II. And many others
- A red rooster lollipop
- A bike for Christmas
- A pendant necklace with my mom’s photo
- The smell of homemade fresh bread just out of the oven
- Homemade strawberry jam, stewed on a slow fire for hours by my grandmother
- Homemade Easter buns
- Homemade anything
- A notebook filled with my mom’s recipes**
* The photographs inside my album are black and white. Each one is carefully placed inside its own cardboard frame and below it, in exquisite handwriting, is the date and occasion. The very first photograph, of us on the steps outside the hospital where I was born, is taken on the day my parents are bringing me home. Underneath the photograph is a piece of notebook paper which reads: “Outside the maternity ward, February 3, 1982.” My mother wears a knitted dress in olive green, her coat over her shoulders. Her fatigued eyes are those of a girl who has given birth the day before, a girl still at odds with her new identity. She is gently cradling a baby, a baby so swaddled by a pale-yellow cotton blanket that its tiny, wrinkly face is barely visible. Next to my mother is my father; one hand clutches a bouquet of red carnations, the other — wraps around my mother’s shoulder. His wide smile and flickering eyes reveal a late night toasting the health of his firstborn daughter. Or perhaps my dad is simply over the moon.
I turn the pages of the album. Here’s a photo of me asleep, sucking on my thumb; there’s me sitting on the potty, holding a book the wrong way; here I am again on my mother’s lap, nursing from her blooming breast; here’s me on my first birthday—I look guilty and comical with hands covered in buttercream icing from my two-tier birthday cake; there I am next to my mother, up on my toes and looking at her with wide-eyed curiosity as she breaks an egg over a large glass bowl; there’s my dad teaching me to ride a bike; here’s me on my first day of school, my backpack bigger than me. Now the photos from our ski trip to Pamporovo, and from the beach in Kavatsi, and here’s me again, slice of watermelon in my hands, its juice dripping down my chin so I’m bending forward to keep it from getting on my swimsuit. I close the album and put it back inside my treasure chest.
** The notebook with recipes is a day planner from nineteen-eighty-something. The recipes are handwritten and carefully arranged by my mother. They’re of my favorite dishes I’ve never tasted, of cakes, sweets and baklavas, of stuffed grape leaves, moussakas, and creme caramels, of chocolate cakes, of lamb liver with rice for Easter, and bean stew for Christmas, of spinach soup and tarator, mish-mash, of carp with walnuts for St. Nicholas Day, of bundt cake—the sugar halved, of egg-free almond cake, apple strudel, and semolina cake (Lencheto’s recipe), of chicken in béchamel, guyvetch in clay, of stuffed peppers sprinkled with fresh parsley. The planner contains different sections, all neatly titled and marked: pastries, hors d’oeuvres, soups, dishes with meat and without, puddings, “economical” recipes (from back when you couldn’t find anything at the store; the phantom products sugar and flour and milk). I thumb through the imaginary pages of this cookbook and land onto the first page, which is inscribed: For my daughter. So she may still taste from my love when I’m no longer around. I close it and put it back into the treasure chest along with everything else.
To find out more about Four Minutes, visit the novel’s official website.
About the Author: Nataliya Deleva is a Bulgarian writer and poet. She is the curator and editor of the children’s book Once Upon a Time, a collection of bedtime stories by seventeen bloggers and illustrations by their children—in aid of Save the Children, UK. Nataliya has won third prize at two national poetry competitions: Binio Ivanov (2018) and Slavejkov’s Award (2018). Four Minutes is Nataliya’s first novel. It was awarded debut novel of the year by Peroto Literary Awards (2019).
About the Translator: Izidora Angel is a Bulgarian-born writer, translator and creative director living in Chicago. Her work has appeared in the Chicago Reader, Publishing Perspectives, EuropeNow Journal, Three Percent, among others. Her debut novel in translation, The Same Night Awaits Us All (Open Letter, 2018) was the recipient of an English PEN grant, an ART OMI fellowship, and shortlisted for the Peroto Literary Awards (2019).
Video artwork: Jin Kim