31 Aug

Milko Mitev was growing old as a migrant dyulger, a carpenter who had come for work to Sofia many years ago.

He was now a maistor with a team of his own journeymen and apprentices, all from his western village in the Znepole Valley, in the district of Tran next to the Serbian border.

By 1891, the capital of Bulgaria was an expanding city with people flocking to it from all directions. New houses, stores, and office buildings were rising on all sides. The demand for skilled labor was never satisfied. Migrants came to serve as cobblers, tailors, bakers, painters, musicians, masons, potters, tinkers, and construction workers. This unending demand drew labor from the nearby areas of Shoppe mountaineers, and across the border from the regions of Macedonia still part of the Ottoman Empire.

Milko and his team from Bohovo were part of this unending human stream. They entered the town, marching along Pirotska Street. Milko and his chief assistant, Ivan Zahariev, led the way into the crowded migrant section.

The workers from a single village kept themselves together as an almost semi-autonomous community. Each team tended to live as a family unit. They lodged and ate their meals together. The authority of the master tradesman over his subordinates was unquestioned. A strict code of behavior was enforced. Conservative rules existed that had to be obeyed. This was especially true for those involved in the building trades, like the team of Milko Mitev.

Once settled in the Znepole Hotel, run by a landlord from Bohovo, the gang of eight was ready to appear at the square where the morning labor market was held daily. How long would it take them to obtain employment of some sort?

Milko was the second tallest man in his unit, the largest person being his kalfa, Ivan.

The hiring square was packed with seasonal migrants who had come to Sofia to earn some of the money flowing with ease through the burgeoning capital.

The various trades congregated at traditional locations. Voices were audible speaking in whispers, often using secret dialects intelligible only to members of a guild-like trade and not to outsiders.

Milko took his men to the portion of the square where masons and carpenters assembled to meet potential employers. The latter circulated about, talking terms with a series of master-builders such as Milko.

The latter refused offers from two seekers of a construction unit before he found the one he was satisfied with.

“My name is Stoyan Gadev,” said a short, stout middle-aged man in a Western European black suit, with a large cylindrical hat on his head. “I own a shop that specializes in ladies’ millinery, and I have a new, young wife, my second. My intention is to build her a new, modern wooden house in the Bankya district. I have already bought a plot for it. Do you think that you and your men are capable of constructing an up-to-date home for me and my darling?”

“Yes, of course,” replied Milko, seeing his dreams coming true. Here is a likely prospect, he told himself.

“Let’s you and I, then, go to a nearby tavern and talk about the terms. I know an attorney who can draw up a contract fair to both you and me,” said the smiling merchant.

Milko told his work gang to return to their hotel and wait for him. He himself walked away with the business man who planned to have a new house created for his young spouse.

The two, one in modern urban dress and the other in rural homespun, reached agreement on what was to be constructed and how much was going to be paid the builders. Sitting together at a corner table of pine, they sealed their verbal deal over cups of rakiya. “My lawyer will draw up a contract,” said Stoyan. “Are you able to sign it yourself?”

Milko gave a friendly laugh. “Our village school made me fully literate,” replied the giant builder. “My team can begin digging the foundation and the podrum tomorrow morning. We shall need tools.”

“I will write you a bank check with which to purchase all that you need to begin the work. It promises to be a big undertaking. How long do you think the job will take?”

“Not more than three months, at most,” answered Milko. “We will do it fast, but carefully and accurately. You shall face no problems for years, I promise. You and your wife will be satisfied, I give my word.”

The merchant grinned, his mind concentrated on the future happiness of his beautiful young Anka.

Wagons with supplies arrived at the site. Work commenced, continuing daily from dawn to dusk. The frame of the house appeared and the future residents came in a hired horse cab to view the progress for themselves.

Anka Gateva was a tall young woman dressed in brilliant white linen, holding a parasol in her frail hand. She had the looks and aura of a Sofianka of high social rank, a European lady from the West.

Stoyan Gatev alone spoke to Milko. “The construction is going forward quite well, and that makes me and my wife very happy, both of us. It is all satisfactory, so far. But when will the house be completed and ready for us to occupy it? My Anka is impatient to move in and begin to furnish and decorate all the rooms. That is what my dear is looking toward and planning for. When will your team be finished?”

The master-builder’s brown eyes scanned the half-finished structure jutting up into the azure summer sky.

“I estimate that we will have the house done by the middle of September, sir,” he told the owner-to-be. “We shall then be ready to carry out the traditional builders’ ceremony of dedication and sanctification. We are like all the peasants from the Shopluk: we summon a spirit, a shadow to guard the new building, its walls, and the people who shall be living within it.”

Stoyan raised his thick, black eyebrows in a look of astonishment. “They still believe that a new construction must have an invisible senka immured within the new outer walls? I would think that was an obsolete superstition with no place in a great modern city like Sofia.” He stared with wonder at the master- builder he had hired.

Milko, searching for words, mumbled an apologetic reply. “My team of carpenters are uneducated workmen, all from the same humble Znepole Valley village of Bohovo. It is necessary to make them happy by fulfilling their traditional expectations. They are people who stick to their out-of-date customs and traditions. What can I tell them?”

The merchant said no more, but stepped over to where his wife was waiting. The pair headed for their hired horse cab.

Stoyan Gadev had inherited his small cottage in the Yuch-Bunar quarter of the city from his father, born there when Sofia was an unimportant little regional town under Ottoman rule. It was a limited, uncomfortable residence, especially for the young second wife of the millinery merchant.

As soon as the pair were home, Anka began to berate her middle-aged husband about what was going up as her future home.

“I am truly appalled at what you are buying for us. Everything is wrong. The house will never reflect our wealth or our social status the way that it should. The ceilings are not high enough. I see higher ones in other newly constructed places. The windows, I imagined, would be bigger and more prominent. If the parlor had more length to it, we could purchase more chairs and have more expensive furniture in it.

“Everything about the house is going to be inadequate. The structure will not make us look important enough, the way that it should. I had wished for much more than we are getting. With all the money you are spending on it, this master-builder is not giving us what we deserve. Is the man some sort of village swindler of sorts? Like my father used to say, you can never trust a hick from out of the Shopluk. They promise a lot, but they never deliver.”

She scowled at her dumbfounded husband with fiery disgust in her dark eyes.

He thought for several moments, then replied to her tirade.

“I shall see what I can do, my dear. Milko will have to make some corrections and changes in what he is doing.”

Only a few minor changes that were easy to effect were accepted by the master-builder, somewhat troubled by such inconsistency in the husband and wife for whom his team was working.

Ivan Zahariev, the journeyman kalfa under Milko, was a skillful glazier, able to install all the window in the house with the help of assisting ciraks.

The final phase of construction included placing a roof on top of the structure and painting the exterior and interior walls. The end of the project loomed ahead, judged Milko with deep relief. It had been hard to make all the modifications demanded by Mr. and Mrs. Gadev.

One afternoon, during a break for lunch, Ivan brought up the subject of the traditional builder’s sanctification of the building with a senka spirit, something going back countless centuries, perhaps even to pagan times.

“It is important that we have a sacrificial senka ready to place in the foundation box that has always been the final portion of the house walls,” asserted Ivan with emotion in his voice. “Never has a team of builders from our village omitted that important, fateful finale to all that went before it. Even though Mr. Zahariev has presented us with numerous difficulties by changing his mind so many times, our obligation is to make this protective sacrifice for his sake. Our belief is that a building will only stay erect in one piece if a senka is sacrificed for it and the new owner. Otherwise, the house and its residents fall to the merciless elements of natural evil. That is our obligation to the owner whom we work for.”

Milko looked with affection at his main assistant. “Yes, I know all that. It is hard for a master-builder such as me to live up to such high expectations. Those like me are supposed to possess magical powers. The belief has long been that we can bring good fortune and even happiness to those who employ us to construct a building. Houses, bridges, water fountains: whatever we construct can be given protection by the senka spirit we put into the foundation walls. The sacrifice ensures the future of the building and its owner. I know all that, Ivan.”

The journeyman cast his coal-black eyes away to one side, away from the master-builder.

“At some time away back in the past, our forefathers stopped placing living humans in the walls they constructed, turning instead to wooden and cloth dummies that they created for that purpose. That is what the gangs that go forth out of Bohovo do in today’s Bulgaria. No person is sacrificed in order to give a senka to a new house or bridge. Only a doll-like model of a man is buried in the walls of the structure. We are not a generation of killers in this age of ours. But there will still be a senka protecting a house such as this one. That is the important part of it.”

The two were silent for a brief time, until Milko Mitev issued an order to his assistant.

“I appoint you, Ivan, to be the one who makes a wood and cloth senka shadow for the house of Mr. Gatev.”

Anka had never showed such angry resolve to her husband before.

“This Shoppe and his gang are making a brainless fool out of you,” she shrilly cried in a voice that Stoyan had never heard before from her mouth and throat. “I, at least, am able to see that the house they put together for you is a worthless hovel. It is not what I expected it to be. Everything about the building is wrong.

“If you pay them what they want, you will become their willing victim. Not a single lev should go to such criminals. I tell you this: I shall never move into such a hovel. I intend to remain right here, where I am at present. That monstrosity will never be a shelter that I dwell in. No, I refuse to enter that place, or make it my residence.”

The millinery merchant walked away, unable to withstand the constant stare of her scornful eyes.

Ivan Zahariev brought the senka form to the house site late at night in a wheelbarrow.

The master-builder and the rest of his crew were waiting there for the arrival of the symbolic figure. In just a few minutes, the journeyman kalfa carried it in his arms to a special opening left in the rear wall of the structure.

It was a simple matter to throw the puppet into the breech, then quickly close it up with finality.

The deed was done and over with.

The gang returned to the tavern portion of the Znepole Hotel and celebrated the deposit of the house’s protective spirit. A first resident was now located in its foundation and walls. It would now be under a guardian.

Early the following morning, in the hour after dawn, a police captain accompanied by four uniformed Sofia patrolmen, walked into the Znepole Hotel and asked where to find a master-builder named Milko Mitev. The clerk on duty led these officers of the law to the large room shared by the migrant gang from Bohovo. The captain knocked on the door and inquired about the individual he had come to find.

“I am the person you are seeking,” confessed Milko. All the workers were awake, preparing to eat a breakfast that a pair of them were cooking in a small stove they had put together.

“Come along with us, please,” the captain told the master-builder. “You may consider yourself under arrest. A complaint has been registered against you by a citizen named Mr. Stoyan Gadev. He accuses you of fraud and theft. There will be a preliminary investigation of the charges made against you by the city prosecutor of Sofia.

“Come along with us.”

His head spinning in confusion, Milko did as he was told. What was the man who had contracted with him to have a house constructed trying to do?

Later that morning, at police headquarters near the royal palace, the accused one found out from the official lawyer of the city government.

“It has been sworn that you fraudulently took funds from Mr. Stoyan Gatev under cover of a contract to build him a two-storey wooden house on a vacant lot that he owns and that you failed to fulfill the terms of that signed agreement, misappropriating the money given to you to purchase building materials and construction tools. The bill against Milko went on to detail the inadequate, faulty work done under the supervision of the arrestee.

The master-builder spent that night in a cell of the Sofia Jail.

Stoyan Gatev means not to pay me for the work that my team and I have carried out in building him and his wife a new home, he concluded. These charges are his way of justifying that act.

A dark shadow with a reddish tint of color to it moved through the rooms of the empty house. Wherever it went, the senka scattered minute grains with the capability of breaking out into flame.

A large fire was soon consuming the wooden planks of the walls, the floor, and the ceilings.

The property belonging to Stoyan Gadev was destroyed before the fire-fighting water vehicle could do anything.

When word of the event reached Milko in the jail, it was Ivan Zahariev who informed him.

“It is what our village legends say always happens if someone does harm to a master-builder who builds a home for him. The senka will destroy the structure. That will be its vengeance upon the one who harms the one who puts the building together. It is the senka that we put into the walls and the foundation that burned down what Gadev refuses to pay you for, sir.”

“Yes, the shadowy senka knows what justice is, and will do what is necessary to bring it about,” murmured the master-builder, as if to himself or to a spirit hidden somewhere in a corner.

The police released Milko after three days, because the ruined merchant had dropped his charges against him.

Milko decided to gather his gang and return home to their village.


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