“The Exhibition” is a peculiar story in Yanitsa Radeva’s oeuvre: it is her first, and entirely successful, attempt at the genre of the uncanny. Inspired by a real-life event (Bodies, a controversial showcase, came to Sofia a couple of years ago, stirring every ethical pot possible), “The Exhibition” tells the story of Siyka, a cleaning lady whose work one day ends with the most macabre encounter in her life. Yanitsa, known in her novels and poems as a careful investigator of all our inner worlds, has written a perfect tale of personal horror. There is almost no political commentary in “The Exhibition,” and no social outrage. Yet, what the reader witnesses is the quiet undoing of a world, and the process is beautiful and diabolical at the same time. Translating it was both a challenge and a pleasure. I can only hope for more such forays from Yanitsa.
When Siyka, or Lady Siyka, as the young security guard, in jest or perhaps even earnestly, had once called her, stepped into the store for the first time and heard the manager talking about the exhibition, she felt like clapping her hands together in disbelief: It can't be. But the only phrase she had at her disposal was “I understand.”
A long time ago, when she first started calling in, some distant relative's discarded bonnet pulled tightly over her head to keep the wind outside from blowing dust and rubbish into her locks (which were a nightmare to comb through anyway), everyone in the store thought, What on Earth is this lady doing here? It soon became obvious, however, that this was not just some ordinary lady, but Lady Siyka, our lady of the roasted chestnuts, who would, once in season, bring them over and leave them steaming on the counter. Otherwise, she was responsible for the daily maintenance of the shop windows’ transparency. Of course, given how few visit the big store on any given day, she managed to keep even the powder-room tiles spotless—and one would be excused, at this point, for thinking, How is this even possible?! Well, it was, and not by way of magic, of course, but only because Siyka, or Lady Siyka, was fastidiousness itself, and every person in the store could confirm this. Often days would pass without her turning the Hoover on, yet not a single speck of dust landed on the floor. It was as if, the moment she came in, all the dust up and scampered away. Whenever she would start humming about with the Hoover, it was only because it was part of her duties, and because there were all kinds of microscopic creatures crawling about and invisible motes falling down from people. But mostly she could be seen guiding the visitors with that never-aging smile of hers, emphasised by her nose—and oh, what a nose! The cloakroom attendant, a woman who had travelled around in her day, claimed to have once seen noses like hers on some Eastern island or other, yet still not quite the same: Such a nose, she used to say, could not be found anywhere else, I think. Lady Siyka would only smile and say: Why, but of course it can. And if no absentminded were visitors around, she would take a little time and run a thing or two through her mind.
And now the manager, though probably mostly the foreign owner, had decided to generate some interest, to advertise, to attract more people through the store’s ministry building-like doors, with its red carpets and its real boutique goods, not mall rags but truly exquisite works of pure craftsmanship (or at least feigning exquisiteness successfully enough); with its jewellery boxes and chess figurines in uniforms like real soldiers, with the pungent aroma of flowers, vanilla, and fruit that seemed to stick to her body every time she passed by the perfume counter.
Had Lady Siyka been younger, or at least as vain as the young, she might have stopped from time to time to soak up the fragrance, as much and as deeply as she could, until it took over by virtue of its own resplendant profuseness. She might’ve even opened a bottle and breathed in the scent, or perhaps even sprayed some of it on the underside of her wrist like the sales assistant did when she thought nobody was watching. But it had been a long while since she had been young, and her vanity had long left her. Besides, Lady Siyka lived by herself; she was no longer waiting for her son to return from that warm and sunny land on the other side of the ocean where he had gotten lost and had eventually ceased sending even the occasional holiday text message. All that was left of him was the shape of her nose, the same as his, as if she had ripped it off her own face and glued it onto his. Oh, how she hated that thieving country! She was always careful to read the labels and never bought anything that came from that thieving country, ever, even though she would have loved to know how the food tasted that her son had for breakfast, lunch, and dinner. This was also why she always passed the perfume section swiftly, so that she was not reminded of how alone she was and of how little consequence her smell was. In those moments she had for herself, she thought of how no one had ever needed her to smell nice, and she scrubbed the glass window with renewed viciousness, never even glancing at the round perfume bottles or the ones made to resemble a woman’s body.
Instead, she always hung around the children’s clothing section, and not only because the children who came to the store liked to touch the windows and play a game of leaving footprints and smears from noses and lips. Sometimes a pair of tiny lips would remain clinging on to the transparent glass: a disembodied memory floating over the emptiness like the wings of an angel. Carefully wiping them clean, Lady Siyka would sigh out a tiny cloud that would burst almost instantly in the hot air like a soap bubble. The clerk behind the counter never asked her if the bubble was full to bursting with boredom at having to once again clean up after those brats, or with something else. Who cared about the inner reasons that were kept tightly under the skin, like a bubble or—more fittingly—a blister that, once burst, could cause so much pain?
The manager’s instructions washed over Lady Siyka like the tide: she would need to assist the maintenance guy with shuffling the benches and billboards around; she would have to stay late the next several days, by exception, so to speak, and be on the lookout for those who tried to take a shot with their phone or camera or some other unauthorised thing; most importantly, for her main duty, she would have to keep the exhibition pieces clean, because they were all so expensive, so authentic, such as neither she, nor the maintenance guy, had ever seen. If anything were to happen to the models, it would take more than a person’s lifetime to pay for them. Furthermore, not one, not even two, lives would be enough to wrap one’s head around the concept of polymer preservation, the science that had made such wonders possible.
Indeed, she had no idea of polymer preservation, so Siyka, or Lady Siyka, agreed that such science was far beyond the limits of her imagination. She had known, however, for a long time now, about these artifacts that everyone was waiting for—she even had a word for them, an authentic sound hanging off the tip of her tongue that she wanted to share with the manager, but, as she was only ever allowed to say one thing, she just pursed her lips, set herself into a blank expression and uttered: I understand.
‘Are these truly corpses?’ The maintenance guy would ask later, even though he knew full well that they were.
‘Truly,’ she replied, and the curse that follows somehow failed to strike her as vulgar.
So Siyka, or Lady Siyka, set off to make place for the exhibition pieces which were about to be parked in front of the store any moment now—to the bystanders’ pleasure and to her horror, and from the moment they arrived, she would have to start following the orders of the curator, that pretty, lovely, seductively blossoming young lady whom the store manager himself had gone to meet at the airport and would most likely visit later in her hotel room or take for a walk through the picturesque parts of town, oblivious to the fact that the whiteness of her hands was not an effect of her unearthliness, but a sign of anaemia. But Lady Siyka, that was how she introduced herself to the foreign woman, knew this the moment her scrawny body entered the store. She forgot the woman’s name instantly, and was left with Anaemia, which was almost like Amelia, although Amelia was such a vital, fluttering, yielding name, while the curator and her exhibition were so ghostly that the cleaning lady would not be surprised if, during one of the seven days of the exhibition, none other than Count Dracula were to storm into the store. Seven days... They would pass, somehow. She would try to look away, gaze as little as possible at the artifacts, and the end would come.
But time seemed to have stopped. She noticed this while stopping for an eternally long moment to look at the transparent finger of the curator waving tasks in this or that direction. As if it were a magic wand and not a finger, it petrified the minutes, leaving Lady Siyka with the neverending task of cutting out the labels describing the parts of the human body that were going to be stuck onto the displays. The large cases seemed countless and looked just like sarcophagi. The boys in overalls carried them endlessly through the service entrance. No, she would not look at these things; she would refuse to help if they asked her; she would state most firmly that she didn’t want to cause damage to the artefacts, preserved so well with the help of God knew what. But she didn’t have to. For Anemia told her in her broken Bulgarian:
“You can go now, Lady Siyka, our team will prepare the displays during the night!”
All that was needed of her was to keep the space around the displays clean and safe. Of course, there would be security guards around, but still… the materials were quite expensive.
Of course, she would never do it. She made a promise to herself not to look, no matter the case, in that direction. As soon as she entered the building tomorrow, she would fix her eyes on the carpet; she knew the place by heart, she could get anywhere without looking.
And on the following morning, eyes downcast as promised, she stepped on the red carpet, which spread under her feet like a ripe raspberry. But, oh, the terrible mess they had made during the night! The dirt on the carpet made Lady Siyka shiver, and she rushed for the vacuum cleaner. She shuttled to and fro the entire day, trying her best to avoid the figures that stood always too close, always a turn of the head away, only a few metres from the windows, those creatures or bodies that seemed to be watching her. In the end, there was no time for the perfume section’s windows, and it was the first time she felt any desire to go there and bathe in the aromas, or maybe it was something else she felt—but she said to herself: I’m so dirty from all that work, I must stink.
She somehow made it through the second day, trying to think the whole time of the evening, her street, and the chestnut trees that would be in bloom soon, of how she could share her thoughts on the exhibition with her neighbour tonight, who might have heard about it on TV… but no, she didn’t want to share anything with anyone, all she wanted was to go home and stand silent under the chestnut trees. But when she stepped into the store on the third day, the floor, sprinkled with dust once again, made her shiver. It was when she saw the palm trees, brought from exotic countries, somehow grown taller during the night and which she knew, in their homeland, fed on dead flesh from the ground—frogs and even small rotting birds—that Lady Siyka knew.
Something was happening during the night, maybe even now, while the thought flashed through her mind. The exhibit pieces, polished as they were with silicon rubber or whatever was written on the label, were peeling the way the skin on any body peels, shedding dead cells. These pieces were dead bodies, billions of dead cells, that wanted only one thing—to peel away. She sensed that at the bottom of their dead eyes, which she didn’t want to look at, not for anything, which were watching her. They wanted to revert back to their natural state, to peel, to fall onto the ground, to be breathed in by the visitors—and by her. No matter how much she washed later, those dead cells would always be stuck to her tongue, in her lungs, in her dreams. In the end, those dead bodies would decompose, despite the attempts at preservation. This would happen, the same way it had happened many times before with other living things in this world. What would pale Anaemia and the far and foreign bosses do then? They would go, as rumour had it, to the morgues, or look for homeless people under the bridges, or maybe start making the new exhibition pieces in a laboratory where the skin was peeled off the body, the heart taken out, the ears immersed in naphthalene or some other substance, and everything was spread out on a huge smooth table to look just like that triptych in Spain which she had only seen in a picture. Now, though, Lady Siyka managed to recall only the right panel of the painting, the dark one, the eviscerated one that was called… Oh… what has come to us, what?... and she took her working overall off… I don’t feel well, she said, I’ll go to the pharmacy.
Of course, she didn’t head for the pharmacy. Why would she head for the pharmacy? What her head needed was—yes, laughing gas, a solid dose of laughing gas, so that she would forget where she was, what she was doing, what the specks of dust around her were, what helped the plants in the store grow, everything. She thought that the moment she set foot there tomorrow, or whenever she decided to go back, the plants would be taller, already reaching the glass ceiling many meters above their leaves. If she entered the church, if she extended her arm to fill the Thermos she usually carried tea in with holy water, if she poured that water over the bodies, they would shrivel up and disappear, leaving only tiny piles of humus. But new ones would be brought instantly, this she knew; she could already see the trucks, company name emblazoned on the side, stopping in front the store and the boys in overalls carrying in new sarcophagi. There was nothing she could do, she was helpless. Dear Lord… how is that possible…, quickly, filled with shame and guilt, shaking, she lifted her fingers to cross herself.
Not a single premonition rang through her mind that it would be her last visit to a church.
The fourth and the fifth day passed, without her noticing. She felt as if she was living in the insides of an enormous whale. No, not a whale, a Hoover sucking in all the waste in the world and stuck in one tiny spot it could not clean, no matter how hard it tried. In the evenings her feet hurt, her head reeled from—she was sure—the microscopic specks she had not managed to vacuum during the day.
On the sixth morning she looked at herself in the mirror. She thought the words she frequently repeated aloud to herself in the morning. Mommy’s boy! She could see him leaning over the white sink, rinsing his mouth. Only two days to go. The thought gave her courage, infused her calves with energy, and she felt ready to scrub and vacuum floors, to peel off specks. Only two days to go! When the bodies were gone and forgotten like some nightmare, she was going to disinfect everything and the whole place would shine like the face of the sun.
The day was coming to an end with such soothing thoughts when she heard the shouting about her.
Kids, away from their parents, were chasing each other around the figures, caught in the game, most likely oblivious to the bodies. They pushed one of the figures and it swayed, slightly at first, then more violently, threatening to fall down with a bang and a cloud of bones and ossicles.
Terrified by the thought of having to collect those remains later, Lady Siyka felt like a frog jolted, for the sake of experiment and scientific discovery, by some electric charge. Just like this frog, she jumped towards the figure, instinctively, wihtout thinking, to lead it from its unnaturally dynamic state back to its unnaturally static state of towering above everyone in the store. Not looking at the body (she only felt it tearing the air with its desperate motions), she leaned and caught it at the waist, which was enough to stop the swaying. She scolded the children for their carelessness and tried to move as far and as quickly away as possible, but she felt its fingers, its bony bamboo-like fingers, tangling in her hair. Terrified, yet still keeping some composure, she pulled them away and raised her head. Face to face with the figure, she looked into its dead, bottomlessly sad eyes. She saw the cheekbones, the lips, open as if for some frozen message, but mostly she saw the nose. No matter what method of preservation, no matter what substances used, she could never mistake that nose, the nose that looked just like hers. Then her insides coiled, her uterus shrivelled, followed by her body, her face, her lips. She filled the air with a shriek.
Then she dropped like a fly.
At least, that was what the sales assistant in the children’s clothing department, who had witnessed everything, thought.
The kids’ parents stormed out in outrage, because, can’t you see, the personnel here were scaring the children with those shrieks. They wanted to file a complaint. The manager, where was the manager? Not here?! What do you mean, He’s not here? Call him right away, there’s some woman employee lying unconscious on the floor, scaring the children. We want him here. Him and an explanation, immediately.