This story is first in a series of ‘travel mythologies’ that seek to blend travel writing with local mythology.
The Weird Sisters of Bulgaria / Zachary Fillingham / 2013
Bulgarian folklore tells of a thread weaving the fates of all humanity into one continuous whole. Watching over it are three sisters called the orisnizi, who together are responsible for assigning destinies to newborn babies on the first night of their lives. Theirs is not a job that lends itself to universal popularity, particularly among the downtrodden, the luckless, the addicts, and the otherwise wretched, so it should come as no surprise that over the years people have taken to calling them witches, or the “weird sisters.”
But what many of the stories fail to mention is that the orisnizi have actually retired. No one knows why they gave it up, or how human fate is arbitrated in their absence. Perhaps eternity got to be too much for three women living together next to the sun, or perhaps it was the grisly business of modern life that made them pack it in. If it’s something you really must know, why not go and ask yourself? They have all settled down in Bulgaria.
The eldest sister moved to the capital. The introvert of the group, she had been responsible for the ‘black’ destinies. These were a mixed yet mostly blood-soaked bag, ranging from murder and maiming to the more tragicomic examples of the cavalry officer who provided his men with an unexpectedly lurid demonstration of the dangers of trying to clean a loaded rifle. Presiding over such misery and gore took a toll on the eldest, leaving her moody, taciturn, and wholly unable to open up to other people.
For the first few months, she spent most of her time wandering the streets of Sofia. The city was already familiar to her having witnessed its rise and ruin through the eyes of so many unfortunate souls. But to experience all of its sights, sounds, and smells in person – that was something else entirely. She liked how the city’s vibrant history was evident at every turn: the tiered arches and horizontal stripes of neo-Byzantine architecture, the crumbling remnants of Ottoman bath houses and mosques, and the stark, brutalist edifices left behind by decades of Soviet rule. And, like her fellow citizens of the 21st century, she also enjoyed visiting the posh cafes along Vitosha Boulevard, where she could sip a cappuccino and watch shopping bags swing amidst the passing throng.
It was on one of her daily strolls that she had an idea: she should write a travel article about Sofia. It would be a great opportunity to reach out and share her experience, which was nothing if not unique, and it surely couldn’t hurt to try and earn a bit of money (an aspect of mortality she was still getting used to). After an hour or two of research into the prevailing trends in contemporary travel writing, she wrote the following article:
The Top Ten Must-Dos in Sofia
1) Rila Monastery. This majestically idyllic and profoundly soul-stirring 10th century monastery is located in the Rila Mountains about 100 km from Sofia. It is dedicated to John of Rila, a Bulgarian saint who they say lived in harmony with the animals of the forest. Don’t forget to try the yoghurt!
2) Sofia Free Tour. This tour is an inexpensive way for people to see Sofia. It runs twice a day at 11am and 6pm and meets outside of the Palace of Justice. Make sure to look both ways before crossing the road during the tour. The number of people who die while on vacation might surprise you.
3) Shopping on Vitosha Boulevard. Here you can stock up on the many treasures of Bulgaria, like rose water, rose soap, rose shampoo, rose cleanser, rose oil, rose candles, rose makeup, rose candy, or maybe just a rose. Because a bargain by any other name is just as gratifying.
4) Alexander Nevsky Cathedral. This is the second-largest cathedral in the Balkans. Its golden dome is sublime, but why listen to me – just come and see it yourself…
… You get the general idea. She is still trying to find a taker for her travel piece, and in the meantime has landed a gig writing SEO articles in bulk for an online personal fitness portal.
The youngest sister didn’t fare much better. She settled down in Plovdiv, a 6,000-year-old city of Roman ruins, gilded churches, and cobbled medieval streets. It had been her duty to hand out the plum destinies, the lives defined by requited love, marriage, children, and a sense of narrative closure. Her own expectations had turned a distinct plum hue as a result, and she arrived in Plovdiv intent on finding love in its purest form, or as her elder sister might say: “love yet unfiltered by the exigencies of time.”
But true love proved more elusive than her old bag of destinies might suggest. Though she was undeniably the beauty of the three, with eyes like polished obsidian and curves that could open doors, her endowments had a maddening tendency of going unnoticed. The women of Bulgaria – her competition – were beings of such effortless grace and allure that the youngest orisnizi just faded prosaically into the background. Lacking in any meaningful advantage over these women, with their stylish clothes, professional careers, and EU passports, the youngest sister’s search for true love soon bogged down into a dating war of attrition. Every evening brought a new suitor, a meal at a cozy restaurant in the sepia labyrinth of the old city, and a token gift of rose water or soap. And with each and every failure, a new callous formed over her once romantic soul.
As the revolving door of eligible bachelors spun on endlessly, the youngest began to obsess over the prophetic aspects of a date’s meal selection. Salads were singled out as a bad omen. Bulgarians love salad, and there’s a page or two of diverse salad options on most menus, but she wanted a man who could swim against the current, both figuratively and, from a physique standpoint, literally as well. In the event her date failed the salad test, a Shopska (tomatoes, cucumber, onion, sirine cheese) was infinitely preferable to a Snezhanka (yoghurt, dill, walnuts, cucumber), which experience told her was the salad of compulsive gamblers. She also noted, much to her disgust, that both salads portended an evening of farts which no romance could survive.
Her painstaking observations were eventually compiled into the precise three-course dinner and drink selection that would one day be ordered by her true love. These calculations were scrawled across a giant blackboard in her apartment, showing names, observations, seemingly complex math equations, and magazine cut-outs of Kavarma (roast pork and vegetable stew) and Kebapche (minced meat sausages) – two Bulgarian dishes that were deemed highly auspicious.
Contrary to rumors that a 55-year-old, three-time divorcee was dubbed her one true love last August (he blew it by ordering a second glass of rakia after dinner), the youngest sister remains a fixture in the Plovdiv dating scene.
Perhaps the most balanced of the three, the middle sister ended up in Veliko Tarnovo, an ancient city surrounding a walled hilltop citadel. Like many middle children, she was the one with something to prove, and in proving it she deferred to the easy arithmetic of wealth.
Fortune-telling seemed the logical choice for her small business, but the venture almost collapsed right out of the gates. Her first customer was a real boulder of a man, a factory worker who helped produce the salmon-colored clay tiles used for roofing on most Bulgarian homes. He was very specific about the parts of the future that interested him: lottery numbers, ponies, and Dimitar Berbatov’s destination in the next football transfer window. But when the middle sister placed her two fingers on his forehead, a puzzling scene flashed across her mind. She saw an ancient Thracian slouched over a stone relief of a horseman spearing a wild animal. After carefully aiming his pick, he tapped it gently with a rock. Only three taps in, the horseman’s head broke off and landed with a thud at the Thracian’s feet, triggering an outburst of cryptic profanity that was abruptly cut off by the middle sister’s return to her apartment. There was her client, hands on his knees and beaming at her like some precociously hairy child at a magic show. He wanted numbers and she didn’t disappoint: fours, sixes, and nines, and as for Berbatov – expect the unexpected. Her first satisfied customer.
After a few similar incidents, the middle sister concluded that her talent had become inverted. Instead of a clear view of a person’s future, she only caught a glimpse of their past lives, and mostly the mundane bits at that. But ever the entrepreneur, she refused to let one little setback ruin a good business plan. She developed a new prophecy model combining the vagueness of a tarot reader with a touch of personal bias based on her peek into the client’s past life; because really, how much could a soul change over a few reincarnations?
If she saw an Ottoman janissary marching through the streets of Plovdiv in the 14th century, then her client would find success in an unerring commitment to their principles. The appearance of one of the Russian soldiers who liberated Sofia from Ottoman rule in 1878, especially one of the engineers who helped blow up the city’s mosques, suggested a person who was preyed on by violent passions. A Soviet invader from 1944 meant someone who lacked business talent; a Bulgarian who waited a decade for their fridge during the Cold War was a client who knew the value of patience; and the wife of Party member would always do well to be a little nicer to her friends.
She told me all this and more during my visit to Bulgaria earlier this year. But after placing her fingers on my own forehead, she refused to elaborate any further than:
“You’re never getting this article published.”
For photos from the trip through Bulgaria and Romania that inspired this story, please click here.