Seraphim’s Overcoat


The overcoat was ragged and tattered, long like a priest’s cassock and meant for winter. The man who wore it, neither a villager nor city dweller, also wore sandals on his feet and a rumpled bowler hat tipped down over his eyes. His appearance, especially due to the old overcoat, was particularly peculiar in this terrible summer heat. The coat at one time would have been blue and made of a single piece of cloth, but now nothing of its former self remained. It was frayed, threadbare, covered in holes and patches. Among the countless multicolored patches, two or three of the biggest ones caught the eye as if taken from a potato sack or some coarse, woolen cloth. They were attached with glue and big, bleached stitches.

Enyu sat in the shade in front of his cafe. The strange man walked towards him, took two or three more steps, and then stopped in front of Enyu. He did not recognize the visitor, but his eyes kept returning to the overcoat. A little insulted and slightly smiling, the man paused for Enyu to look him over. Small and thin, he was lost in the abundant cocoon of his coat. His face was dry, grimy and covered with a rare, red beard. His eyes were damp and foggy like a drunk’s or someone who hasn’t slept. Dumbfounded, Enyu stared while the stranger’s smile grew.

At last, Enyu cried, “Is that you, Seraphim? My God, what’s happened to you!”

“It’s me, Enyu, in the flesh.”

“‘It’s a monster,’ I cried. I thought the scarecrow from Ms. Todorova’s garden came to life or that you had the plague.”

Seraphim’s damp eyes shined while he nodded quietly. He leisurely rested his walking stick on the bench and set down his knapsack. Every year, he appeared around this area until Saint George’s or Saint Dimiter’s day. Though from the city, he always sought work in the villages where he could do only light, insignificant jobs like feeding pigs, cleaning cattle sheds, or taking a couple of cows out to graze.

“Where have you been?” asked Enyu. “You’ve quit work early; the storks haven’t migrated yet.”

“I guarded tiles at a kiln in Belitsa for a man named Panaiyot,” Seraphim said softly as if afraid someone might overhear. As he spoke, his eyes were wide and startled, and then suddenly he began to laugh allowing his teeth to shine between his chapped lips. “Harvest was good throughout the villages,” he continued, “and when our Bulgarians have money, they build houses. But once harvest passed, the Turlaks* came by with their carts and bought all the tiles.”

“All of them?”

“Every last one of ‘em. We sold out, and the boss said, ‘I no longer need a guard, Seraphim.’ He paid me and sent me packing.”

Smiling, Seraphim removed his overcoat, revealing his tall, frail frame. He then carefully placed the coat on the bench and crossed himself. Enyu knew that Seraphim must have saved money while away, and he chided, “You should buy a new coat.”

“That’s a great idea,” replied Seraphim, “This one’s had it.” He examined his coat and smiled: “This one’s fit for a museum.”

“Sit down and relax,” said Enyu who then stood and entered the café. It was deep and cool like a barn. The roof met in two slants high above the beams with hay stacked under the shingles where a lone swallow’s nest rested. However, Seraphim remained outside in the heat. He removed his hat revealing matted, gray hair while slowly cutting his bread with a dull knife and sweetly chewing the dry mouthfuls. A swallow fluttered its wings just in front of his face and then flew into the café before going back out. Seraphim sat still, so a couple of sparrows could take whatever crumbs they wished. Meanwhile, a woman walked by, her dress rustling as she entered the café. She began talking in a loud voice, and Seraphim listened.

“…Expensive, everything’s expensive, Godfather! The two or three eggs we got from the hen this morning were barely enough to buy salt and a bar of soap, a box of matches and gas–forget it!”

“And Ivan?”

“He’s resting. He’s been in St. Mary’s clinic for almost seven months now. He can’t work. He choked on something, and now he’s yellow, frail, and thin as a wafer. They told me to take him to the hospital.”

“Hospitals cost money,” said Enyu.

“Of course they do.” The woman sighed heavily: “The other day, our cow died. When I took it out in the morning, nothing was wrong with it, but in the evening, it fell dead at the gate. My soul ached; we cried as if it were our own child.”

“Cattle get sick,” said Enyu, “I had a calf die on me.”

“We took the meat and skin, but the surgeon said, ‘You can’t eat that; you better bury it skin and all.’ Oh, I don’t know what to do, I just don’t know.”

The woman seemed to fall silent, but when Seraphim listened closer, he understood that she was whispering. Suddenly, Enyu exclaimed, “I don’t have any money! Where the hell would I get money for you?”

“Please. Please help me, Godfather. Who else can I turn to? I beg you.”

“Leave me alone!” Enyu screamed. “I told you, I don’t have any money!”

The woman fell silent and sobbed. Seraphim listened to her hiccup and wail as if severely beaten. Angry, Enyu appeared at the door, and Seraphim quietly put his bread away while sitting up straight. The woman quickly left the café wearing a kerchief so as not to show her face, but by her demeanor, Seraphim could tell she was young.

“She wants money?” Seraphim whispered.

“She wants money. I’m not a bank! She wants to take her husband to the hospital. Good, well, since I don’t have any money, how can I give it to her?” Enraged, Enyu shouted, “I’m broke. Flat broke!”

Seraphim could never stay idle and began to stack rocks that had been unloaded some time ago in front of Enyu’s house; he then went for water.

That evening, Seraphim prepared his bed in the village square in front of Enyu’s café.

“Come on, at least stay here under the eaves!” said Enyu. “Sleep on the bench against the wall if you like.”

“No, this is better.”

“But, it’s cold and windy.”

“It doesn’t matter. When I die it just won’t be a matter–there won’t be any wind.” He then looked at Enyu with tear-filled eyes and a vague smile.

“He’s afraid he’ll be robbed,” thought Enyu noting Seraphim had his hand on his coat pocket. He left Seraphim to do as he wished and then closed the café to go home.

The next day, Enyu found Seraphim on the bench in front of the café cutting bread with the dull knife. He stared at Seraphim a long while and finally asked, “What have you done?”

“I haven’t done anything,” Seraphim responded curtly.

“You gave money to Pavlina who was here last night and wanted money from me. I was just at their place, and she told me. How can you give money to someone you don’t even know? She could’ve lied to you. She might not pay it back.”

“Ah, she’ll give it back. Do you know the stipulation? When God pays her back, she pays me. I’m in no hurry. At least her husband’s in the hospital.”

Enyu bit his lip.

“And the overcoat? How are you going to buy the coat?”

“I already have one. There’s nothing wrong with it.” Seraphim took his coat from the bench and unfolded it while smiling and softly nodding his head as if he were counting the patches or remembering something.

More than ten years before he had decided to buy a new overcoat. Ever since he was young, whatever he did, he always drank it deep. Now he no longer drank because his health wasn’t strong, but often he gave away some of his money as he had that morning. Since then, the large stitches of gray thread had started to show.

“It’s beautiful!” Seraphim exclaimed joyfully. “I’ll patch it up again and wear it this winter. And maybe, with it, I’ll stand before God and get a new one.” Transfixed, Seraphim spoke without looking at Enyu, and the long overcoat then fell at his feet.


* Residents of several villages in Northwestern Bulgaria.


Yordan Yovkov

Yordan Yovkov (1880-1937) was a Bulgarian short-story writer, novelist, and dramatist whose stories of Balkan peasant life and military experiences show a fine mastery of prose. Though his plots are deceptively simple, the characters are nuanced and profound while the language is startlingly poetic. His works are widely read in Bulgaria.

David M. Jones

David M. Jones is Associate Professor of English at Arkansas State University-Beebe. He has a PhD in comparative literature from the University of Arkansas. He began translating Bulgarian literature in 2000 while serving as a Peace Corps volunteer in Bulgaria. He has published on Yordan Yovkov in Metamorphoses, Passport, Arch Journal, and Sincronia.

English translation copyright (c) David M. Jones, 2016.