The Razkovniche

9 Jun

Dimko Vrachev did not dare claim that he was any kind of medical physician. He feared prosecution as an impersonator or quack. But he had learned his healing techniques from his father, a naturalistic vrach with a vast knowledge of plant remedies based on herbs and grasses. As defensive protection, the small wooden sign on the front of his house read “Naturology Advisor”. But his clients recognized him as a practitioner of traditional Bulgarian folk medicine, a master of its arcane therapeutic methods. He was a popular champion of what had come to be called ethno-medicine.

His town of Sandanski had once been called Saint Vrach, or “the holy healer”. He had inherited from his father the post and reputation of a people’s doctor, one who knew the secrets of untold generations of ancestors. It was taken for granted by most who came to him that Dimko had the ability to conjure away the evil spirits that caused illness, pain, and disease. For the poor and the desperate, he could be the final resort.

Dimko’s path as a vrach took a new direction when there came to Sandanski a young female named Blaga Tirova who claimed that she possessed the talents of an old-fashioned enchantress who could cast and dissolve spells.

“This woman claims to be a bayachka,” a neighborhood friend on Voden Street informed Dimko. “She tells people that she knows how to perform conjuring and bring about cures from all sorts of illnesses and aches. You should meet her and decide whether she is honest and truthful, or only a fraudulent pretender.”

The tall, extremely gaunt Dimko did not feel that he should go out of his way and intentionally attempt to encounter this potential rival. Instead, it turned out to be the newly arrived woman who sought him out by boldly knocking at his door and introducing herself.

“My name is Blaga Tirova and I am a newcomer to Sandanski, only recently having arrived here from the northwest. I grew up in a village near the Serbian border, in the Transko district. The reason I took the liberty of knocking on your door and presenting myself is the fact that the two of us shall be operating in similar professions. I am what was once called a bayachka or basmaritsa. My training permits me to help people escape from pain and illness through the influence of spells and enchantments that I am able to cast.

“I thank our present government, after many decades of prohibition under the Communist Party, for permitting the restoration of our ancient Bulgarian cures and therapies. My hope is to establish a successful practice here in this city. There is no reason why you and I cannot be cooperative partners in the establishment of an alternative system of treatment, independent of the limits and powers of established European medicine. I plan to cooperate with you to the maximum extent possible, Mr. Vrachev.”

The latter felt overwhelmed by what the comely young woman had just told him. He gazed at her pale, oval face and large almond eyes. There was an attractive confidence in her looks, posture, and attitude.

Dimko groped for an excuse with which to get rid of her presence. “I am sorry, Miss Tirova, but I have a very busy schedule ahead of me today. I have a client expected any minute now, and then there with be a number of other visitors. I would certainly enjoy talking with you at length, but there is not sufficient time for that right now. You must arrange to see me on another day, when I will have the leisure to have a longer discussion of your plans.

“For now, though, you must pardon me for postponing further conversation on matters that concern you and the practice you are planning to set up in Sandanski. I must say that it was a pleasure to meet you.

“Good-bye, Miss Tirova.”

He closed his front door, compelling the embarrassed bayachka to slink away as if effectively put in her place.

Word spread about Sandanski that the new bayachka was in personal conflict with the naturalistic folk therapist they were familiar with. They were in competition for clients among those suffering disease and pain who had given up on conventional medicine and its remedies.

Blaga won the confidence of women who had lost hope of recovery, talking with them at length about how she aimed to deal with what she saw as the primary cause of the maladies they suffered.

“There is a demonic force that has taken hold of your soul and must be permanently expelled,” she would say to a typical client. “I shall recite certain secret incantations that I have learned and attempt to draw that cause of your trouble out and away from you. It will be long and difficult, but must be done. You will know when I have found and taken hold of the demon inside your soul, for I shall begin an exercise of deep yawning.

“I predict that I will fall into a trance while accomplishing this, becoming unconscious for a time. The secret formulas that you hear must never be revealed to anyone else. Will you swear to that? Good.”

Blaga then carried out a ritual of blowing and yawning that continued for an indefinite time, until the bayachka became convinced that she had liberated the soul of her patient from the evil force causing illness and pain.

The symbolic whispering of the formulas she had inherited from mother and grandmother had banished the demon.

Within a few weeks, the beautiful young woman had won a growing group of believing, faithful followers who spread the word of her marvelous success in providing cures and relief from pain.

Dimko heard rumors of the commerce in talismans that the bayachka down the street from him had begun.

“She is selling her customers magical objects that are claimed to bring people money, good fortune, or even victory in matters of love. These are small doll-like figures made of red, black, and white threads. It is going to end up a big scandal unless the authorities of Sandanski clamp down on her unholy business in time.”

Echoes of what she was teaching her followers reached the ears of the angry natural therapist who dealt mainly in mountain herbal remedies.

“This young woman commands the sick or the desperate to take the talisman she provides them and drag it through the hollow of some tree in the uplands. This is to be done early in the morning, just before the sun rises. Or else in the evening, immediately after sunset.

“Some of her customers are told to repeat magical sentences that she gives them in locations of transitional borders: doorsteps, fireplaces, wells, springs, fences, chimneys, or even graveyards. She predicts that her incantations will open up the closed passages that prevent the demons of sickness from escaping the mind and soul of the person suffering torment and pain.”

Dimko boiled with rage at what he saw as exploitation of the uneducated and superstitious by a greedy criminal committing fraud each day that she continued seeing her desperate clients.

One neighbor whispered an outrageous tale he had heard about the bayachka down the street.

“A woman came to her describing a deep fear of vampires that she had suffered from for many years, from her childhood on. She paid this Blaga for a tiny piece of a bone that the spell-caster told her had magical powers to protect her because it came from the jaw of a fearless wolf. The client bought it from her and wears it around her neck day and night.”

The herbalist-healer asked himself how far Blaga Tirova would go before she was stopped by some greater force that she did not have the strength to contend with. Would he himself have to become the person to put a limit on her outrageous misdeeds?

A strange, startling notice appeared in the next issue of the Sandanski daily newspaper.

Miss Blaga Tirova announced that she was going to present a public lecture with a discussion period following it the next weekend, on Sunday afternoon, at a conference hall at the Sandanski Pirin Hotel, at 4 p.m. Her topic would be “How to Find the Razkovniche of Permanent Good Health”.

Dimko read the paid ad over and over. What was the bayachka up to? What kind of game was she playing?

Consider the matter as many times as he could, it was impossible for him to make any sense out of it.

He could not afford to be absent from the event. It promised to have important implications for himself and his rivalry with the newcomer to Sandanski. There was no need for him to ask any questions or participate in what came after. It would be beneficial to him to learn what she meant by centering her lecture on the subject of the folklore concept of the wild-growing plant or grass that was considered an all-around nostrum, a universal answer or magic key. He knew that the traditional belief was that the razkovniche was an “open sesame” that could unlock any lock or uncover anything secret or hidden. It had the power to open any gate or padlock, or find any buried treasure. Some held that it could turn iron into gold.

How did one locate such a priceless wonder as the razkovniche? Dimko remembered the many tales he had heard or read about the locating of such a miraculous plant that was rare and difficult to track down. In some areas, it was believed that only a hedgehog was capable of leading human beings to it. Other villages thought that a tortoise or turtle would know enough to use a razkovniche to recover its own eggs if they were taken away and concealed in a box difficult to get to. In certain mountain communities, special snakes were captured and then used to search for and point out the miraculous type of wild grass.

Dimko grew determined to learn what special ability the bayachka named Blaga might claim she had in connection with the magical plant believed to bring fortune, success, health, and happiness to those lucky enough to possess it.

What would she be up to at her public presentation on this enchanting subject of a cure-all?

The room was packed with clients who were followers of the healer named Blaga Tirova as well as those who were attending out of curiosity and a desire to witness something new and different. Dimko was one of the last to enter and took one of the remaining vacant chairs in the rear. Absolute silence occurred when the bayachka, in a long, black robe, walked in from the center of the hotel and took a position in front, facing the audience.

She started to speak in a strong, confident alto voice.

“I wish to thank each and every one of you for coming here to hear what I have to say on the topic I have chosen. Your being here is a sign that you care about your own health and future well-being. I respect you for the seriousness you have manifested by showing up to listen to what I have to say on the subject.

“From childhood, all of us have heard of the razkovniche and its power to open what is closed and locked, discover what is hidden, and cure the difficulties in our health and economic life. It is the nostrum for all the varieties of ills that human beings suffer from. This plant holds the key to the problems and mysteries that plague the existence of all the inhabitants of our world.” She made a wide, all-encompassing benevolent smile. “I humbly report that I am able to provide every person who chooses to come and meet with me in private with a sample of the razkovniche and directions on how to find it in the fields of Pirin, Belasitsa, or Ogragden Mountains that tower above the town of Sandanski, once known as Sveti Vrach.”

She halted to catch her breath and survey the faces of her astonished audience. Then she went on to reveal what everyone was eager to learn from her.

“My personal study and search in the highlands has indicated that most books and guides are incorrect when they say that the ancient razkovniche was the wild grass classified as Marsilea with four leafs, popularly called the waterclover. All the world is aware of the four-leaf clover, but that has never been the true identity of our Bulgarian razkovniche. Not at all.

“As a result of continuous explorations of the mountains on my own, I have uncovered an absolutely rare grass that has been overlooked by modern scholars, both professionals and amateurs. If you schedule a meeting with me in the days ahead, I shall provide you a small sample of the plant and tell you the signs by which to find it for yourself in the upland fields where shepherds continue to pasture their flocks of sheep and lambs.

“Thank you for being here. Does anyone have any question they would like to present?” she asked the crowd of entranced listeners.

It was Dimko who shot to his feet and presented a bold challenge to her magnificent claims.

“Tell me, please, whether there has been any scientific justification or corroboration of what we have heard from you tonight? Can you point to one individual who has benefited in any manner from what you have chosen to label the genuine razkovniche? Or is your exposition nothing but a fancy fiction resulting from an overworked imagination?

“I wish to hear you give us one shred of concrete evidence concerning this particular unidentified plant.”

The eyes of the hearers turned from him, back to the young bayachka. What would she say now? How would she counter the critical attack from the naturalistic herbalist?

Her answering words seemed to originate deep within her body, from the center of Blaga’s being.

“I detect a large shadow of doubt and skepticism in your pointed questions, my good man. Since I know you by your face, I surmise that your motive in saying what you did was the personal rivalry, the professional competition between the two of us. What am I to say in reply to such a direct, unconcealed attack on my veracity and integrity? How can I rebut the insinuations made against my public reputation?”

She paused, concentrating the power of her gaze on the man challenging all she had said previously.

“Let the two of us make a wager,” she coolly, slowly announced. “If you come to me for a private session, I promise to provide you a sample of my razkovniche, as well as instructions as to how to find more of it. We shall then see what the results turn out to be.

“If I convince you, then you must make a public statement and confession that you were wrong and I was right. If I fail to prove what I say, then I shall leave Sandanski and never return here.

“Do you accept such terms for a test of what I maintain to be true about the razkovniche?”

“Yes, I definitely do,” called out the excited Dimko.

He grinned. I have this witch where I can rid the community of her presence, he told himself with confidence.

The overstimulated audience began to drift out and homeward, curious to learn what the outcome would be between the two opponents.

The next morning, Dimko received a short note in his mail slot telling him to be present at noon for a meeting with the bayachka at the apartment that also served as her therapy office.

Confident and eager to start as soon as possible, he appeared at her address a quarter hour before midday.

“Come right in, sir,” smiled Blaga as she ushered the visiting opponent into the front parlor. “This is the room where I usually hold my introductory sessions with those seeking my assistance,” she told him. “Please take a chair. Can I get you anything to drink?”

He politely refused the offer and took a big, overstuffed sofa chair that had seen better times in the past.

She sat down across the room from him, at a slight but intended distance, and began to talk.

“I recognize the fact that you are highly skeptical and dubious about me and what I do, and I have little hope of changing your mind on how you evaluate my work with those who are suffering. That must be my conclusion, whether I like it or not.

“The only thing I can say is this: do not judge the razkovniche that I have discovered by your conception of me as a person, as an individual. I may be the awful witch that you think I am. My conjuring and ritual incantations may be worthless, as you say they are. But I beg you to weigh the worth of the razkovniche on its own merits or demerits, independently of what you may think of the sinful woman that I have been and still am.

“That is all that I ask. Your unprejudiced judgment, made with unbiased eyes, will be able to discern the value of what has become a new chapter in my experience as a bayachka. I never foresaw that anything such as this would happen to me, yet it has. If necessary, I am prepared to drop and discontinue all my other curing activities and concentrate upon use of the razkovniche and nothing else beyond it.

“Will you agree to make an objective, dispassionate evaluation of what I have stumbled upon?”

She stared at him with all the optical intensity she was capable of. Her almond eyes did not move or flinch.

Dimko, compelled by circumstances to decide quickly, had only a single alternative. “Yes,” he said, “I agree that I must take a logical, scientific attitude here today.”

Did I do the right thing? he began to ask himself as the bayachka rose from her chair and approached him.

“I shall now hand over to you a tiny box containing a single razkovniche. You must, over the next several days, gaze and meditate on it. Let your thought flow freely like a mountain stream up on Pirin. Then, return to me and relate what the results have been for you.”

She handed him the small container, then made a rapid exit from the parlor.

Dimko put the box in his coat pocket and found his way out.

The blade of wild grass became the focus of its holder’s existence. He stared at it whenever he was alone, spending hours in thoughtful concentration. What was there within this plant that made it so potent in Bulgarian legend? Why did so many continue to have confidence in what it could accomplish?

Dimko did not become conscious of what was happening to himself till a late point in the evolution of his ideas and emotions. When it occurred at last, a revolution changed him to his very core. He decided that he had to inform the bayachka of what the razkovniche’s effect upon his life and his conception of it.

He knocked on her front door early on an already hot summer morning. Blaga happened to be awake and about, leading her competitor, her rival, into the parlor and asking him to sit down while she remained standing.

“What is it? Has something happened to you?” she asked the unexpected visitor.

He appeared to be trembling for a few seconds before he explained what had brought him there.

“I have made a surprising discovery: the razkovniche that you gave to me can transform how one see’s oneself. That is what has happened to me. I no longer feel the weights and burdens that I once did.

“For instance, I previously feared and hated you. I called you names in public and in private. To me, you were a dangerous, selfish witch. All of your activities were for me a money-making fraud, an evil racket of enrichment and exploitation. But this morning, everything looks different to me.

“The razkovniche works the way that you claimed it does. My thinking has been clarified and lifted higher through my contact with the wild grass. Nothing will be the same for me from now on.” He looked at her with chagrin on his face. “I beg you to forgive me, Blaga. I was wrong about you and what you do. You have means of healing that I have been ignorant of. You have been the one holding the truth. I know that now.”

Dimko rose to his feet and slowly stepped to the door, his intention being a rapid exit after his confession to the victorious bayachka.

All of a sudden, she spoke to him in a soft, melodious tone.

“Do not leave here abruptly, please. I was just preparing my breakfast, and I would like you to share it with me. There are many subjects that the two of us should be discussing. I think it would help me quite a lot should you stop here whenever you wish, Dimko. Do not go home so abruptly, my friend.”

Things were never the way they had once been for either one of the healers.

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