Once I asked the old priest, Father Konstantin, why our church was built in such a hidden place and near the gully - at the very bottom of the village, and only when one gets near it they can see it well.
He stroked his white beard, his blue eyes glowing like living coals under his thick eyebrows. He invited me if I hadn’t been in a hurry to sit down next to him on the bench in front of the courtyard of his house. Father Konstantin stretched his body shrunk by the old age. His wrinkled face beamed and slowly, in a soft voice, as if reading the gospel from the pulpit, he started telling his story.
It was still in Turkish times. In a field village beyond the river Maritza a lively young man lived. Gencho, as he was called, was a shepherd. Turks used to visit his pen far too often. Day after day some of them would come and say: “Give us milk!” Then others would arrive: “Give us the lambs!” It was not enough, but they started to beat him with dogwood sticks. Day after day all the same - so he was tired of suffering. One evening, when two Turkish ruffians, who harassed him the most, came in, he saw red. He took the ax and he hit the one, then hit the other –he cut them off. He dug a hole in the bushes and buried them. He hid the tracks around and went home.
He told his relatives what he had done and that he could not stay in the village anymore. He ordered his crying mother not to look for him. He would give a sign to them when he found a good moment and if God had decided he should stay alive.
Gencho was hiding for a while in Plovdiv. He worked here and there as an apprentice, but he could not make a living and one day he came to our village. He found work as a farmhand for Ibryam Bey. Gencho served at the old Bey’s farmhouse, surrounded from all corners by shady gardens. Near the farm, at that time, a mosque rose, with a high minaret, under which the old Turkish café was hiding. When there was a holiday, the farmhand-stranger used to visit it.
Gencho rounded the year and hired himself for the second, and then for the third one. The farmhand did not mate with his peers, but he used to look for a talk with the elderly people in the square. From word to word, he began to urge the Bulgarians to build a church that he had already seen in the city. He found followers among the more progressive villagers. One night, a lot of men gathered in a newly built house at the lower part of the village – pretending that the owner had invited them as guests. The case was to share their miserable destiny and common misfortute.
The young farmhand went there, and from word to word he spoke to them again about a church and a school.
“Let’s do it, but how?” asked the gathered people. “We know that the Bey won’t allow even to wisper a word about this.”
“I’ll tell you how,” said Gencho. “I’ve been thinking many nights, and I know how to trick the Bey.”
“How’s that going to happen?” tentatively said the villagers all together.
Then Gencho thoughtfully said softly,
“Two years ago, I buried near the ravine an iron cross that is already rusty and entangled with the roots of the willows ... We must find a good moment and tell the Bey, that there was a church at this place before the Turks had come. Ibryam Bey could allow us to build a new one because he is superstitious.” The Gencho’s words encouraged them, and they immediately chose three of them, led by Genchoto go to the Bey at appropriate time. In front of him, Gencho had to say that in his dream an old man with a long white beard showed him where there had been an old church. There, along with the church matters, gold had been buried in the earth.
They waited for the wedding of Adil, the eldest son of Ibryam Bey, to find him in good mood. For three days in the Bey’s Konak there were zurnas screaming, drums thumping, and daire jingling. Outside in the meadow there were barbecues sizzling, and the most beautiful Turkish women from the harem dressed in silk shalwars, twisted hot bodies in fast belly dances to appeal to the Bey.
While the wedding lasted, from house to house, the three men collected twenty golden liras for the bribe of Ibryam Bey. They patiently waited before the Konak for the will of the Aga to meet them. They entered the big room, where the Bey was lying on embroidered cushions. He was sucking his hookah, and there was a large cup of coffee in front of him. They bowed low to the Bey, and he signaled with his hand to them to speak.
“Bey Effendi!” Gencho said boldly. “Very often in my dream an old man with a long beard comes to me, he leads me by my hand and says to me, “Here there is a church! If you do not rebuild it, a great plague will happen in the village - people and stock will die away and melt like spring snow...”
The Bey heard the words and immediately went to the spot with a few other Turks.They called up all Bulgarian men to come with mattocks and shovels to dig. They had dug for some time, a lot of soil was heaped, and finally they dug out the buried cross. They gave it to the Bey. He did not touch the cross, and he made them dig for two more days. They never found gold buried in the ground. Then the peasants surrounded the Bey, who was lying under the willow shadows, guarded by his retinue. Gencho stood up in front of Ibryam Bey and supported by the others he uttered the words he had previously thought of.
“Bey Effendi, though we are rayah, we have heard that Allah has mercy for everybody. We do not know his mercy, because it only reaches the Greek bishop, and there is no road to it to our village. We would like, effendi, to build a home for prayers to praise in it both you and the Sultan and to talk to our God.”
“It occurs, bastard, that the mercy of Allah comes only to the Greek bishop!” Ibryam Bey laughed and stroked his beard.
When they felt his good mood, the peasants poured in front of him the collected twenty golden liras. When he heard the liras’ ringing, Bey rubbed his hands with satisfaction, and said, “I give you my will to build a church, but only if you manage to do this for three months time and it can be no more than four yards high...”
The peasants bowed to the land to the Bey and went to spread the joyous news around the village. The very next day, everyone went to work - men, women, old men and children - everyone did what they could and as much as they could. They were dragging stones and beams on their backs and the construction was rising. In less than three months, they built the church - a stone building, up to half of its height dug into the ground with small windows like castle‘s windows on each wall and a slated roof crowned with a cross. A painter from Samokov came and painted it inside. For the Cross Day, the candles were shining in front of the altar and illuminated the images of Christ and Virgin Mary. The first holly water liturgy was served by two priests in the church. Soon after, Gencho was sent to study at the Arapovski Monastery, and then he was ordained the first priest in our village...
The loud and melodious sound of the brass bells of the village goats jammed out Father Konstantin’s words, just as the ruthless time had jammed out and hidden in oblivion many things from the past.
I got up from the bench and kissed the old priest’s hand. I stared unintentionally into the sky in the west, where the sun was slowly setting behind the forest in the horizon. The dark strip of the forest was climbing up the slopes of the mountain, then was slowly descending down and creating an illusion that the sharp peaks in the distance were cutting the sky with a giant saw.