Shevitsa20 min read

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Self-harm and suicide

The tip of the needle turned black in the flame from Peter’s lighter. When my fingertips seared, I pulled the needle out and wiped it on my sheet, leaving a thin streak of soot. I threaded it with coarse, black single-thread and sat cross-legged against the pillows. Biting my lower lip, I pierced my inner thigh, about a palm’s width away from the juncture of my legs. I inhaled sharply as blood pricked at the needle’s point. But it didn’t hurt as much as I expected. As I pulled the long thread through my skin, the metal and cotton sang to me, fast and soothing. My heartbeat slowed, and the screaming in my mind fell silent. I no longer felt anger at the man’s rude touch. The need to pack my things and run flowed out of me. I could stay. I could belong.

§

I can’t remember when I took up embroidery. It was definitely after I moved to Bulgaria. It takes a certain amount of boredom to seek out the magic in old crafts, and in London, I didn’t have time for hobbies. I barely had time to fall in love with Peter. But he was insistent. Who am I kidding? He was perfect. The man I never knew I wanted. Needed. His easy laughter and flirtatious kisses wet on my forehead filled up my loneliness. The way he said my name,⁠­ Anna,­ as if he was sighing—and in that sigh were expanses of possibility—made me sink into him. His muscle and bones, my home. ­­

Then Brexit threw our futures into uncertainty, and the same year there was that damned virus, and suddenly we needed the security only a shared name and a home country could give. The only question was: his or mine?

I didn’t fight for the United States. Peter would have to wait two years for a visa. Besides, his eyes lit up when he spoke about Bulgaria⁠—the dark green forests and the mountains just waiting to be climbed. The family that loved and supported him. Not to mention the visa that took less than three months.

Peter glowed when we landed. He was the prodigal son, returned home. He didn’t just have experience abroad but also success, and he was bringing home a sweet, slightly quirky wife.

“You made the right choice,” his sister and friends and mother and grandmother told me. “Bulgaria is a good place to raise a family.”

I smiled demurely when they started talking babies. I didn’t say I didn’t want any. It wasn’t any of their business. I have to wonder if things would have turned out differently if I had stated my intentions, or lack thereof, in those early days.

We slowly sank into Bulgarian life. His mother taught me how to bake banitsa. His sister showed me where to buy fresh meat and discounted vegetables. Peter stopped playing football and spent more time watching it. Being on his home soil changed Peter. At times I thought I was imagining it, but then I’d watch him speak Bulgarian with his family. His face animated differently, twisted more sharply, his bushy eyebrows drew in deeper. When he said my name, it was no longer the Annhaa I loved him for, but a sharp An-na. Like he was always admonishing me.

When I told him, he laughed and held me. “It’s not that harsh of a language. It just sounds weird because you don’t understand it.”

He was right. I needed to learn the language. I couldn’t even get a job. Peter told me not to worry. I had time. After all, Bulgaria was much cheaper than England, and his salary could easily support both of us.

“It could even support a third,” he said with a mischievous twinkle in his eye.

I stepped back and stared into my espresso. “Your mother’s getting to you, isn’t she?”

“Anna, I was just joking.” He held out an arm for me to snuggle against his chest, but I stayed on the other side of our tiny kitchen. An-na. That sharp stranger he kept talking about.

“You promised you’d never pressure me for children.”

He set his coffee cup on the counter, and his jaw hardened. “I didn’t. I can ask if your mind has changed. That isn’t pressuring.”

My spit tasted bitter. “Has your mind changed?”

His eyes drifted away from my glare, and he deflated. When he spoke, his voice was quiet, almost apologetic. “This is my home. I come back after years abroad and see the villages empty, even the cities crumbling. I wish I could fix it.”

My heart softened at his sadness, but not enough to melt my words. “Fix it then, but not with my body.”

He glanced up, and his face hardened to mirror my own. But I didn’t want to mend things between us. Peter had been the one constant I could cling to in a new land, and that single question made me question the stability of my hold. He left the apartment, and my gut wrenched. It was as if the heavy metal door he slammed had cut the strings stretching taut between us, tethering me to him.

I collapsed against the cupboard, running my hands over my belly and thighs, feeling for the ragged ends of our destruction.

“It’s okay,” I told myself. “One slice can’t sever a thick rope.”

§

That must have been when I took up embroidery. After another frustratingly slow language class, I wandered past the pensioners’ club and saw it filled with old women, sipping tea and slipping yarn over needles. The yarn, bundled neatly in balls held on their laps or in baskets by their feet, reminded me of the tenuous strings Peter had cut, and of the last, fragile ones holding us together. My eyes welled with tears, and I wondered if I could mend that thread. Make an even stronger tether. Maybe a new one.

The next time I passed, I slowed to watch the old women’s rhythmic hands, their gnarled fingers deft as they made vests and slippers for beloved grandchildren. Their mouths moved, too. Slowly. These old women had all the time in the world, and they reeked of a loneliness that tugged at something deep in me. I understood their slow solitude. Their do-nothing days. Their waiting.

When I took up residence in a corner with three women and a container of embroidery supplies, no one said anything about my age. They had to have noticed that I didn’t belong mixed in with them, but they just said hello and continued threading bright colors in and out of muslin pulled tight on wooden frames.

Weeks passed, and my throat unstuck. I tried words I stumbled on in class. I asked questions of the old women that I was too shy to try on the young people who impatiently finished my sentences. The old women never corrected me when I made mistakes speaking, but they were strict masters of my clumsy needlepoint.

Donka, who sat closest to me and probably couldn’t see the patterns through her squinting, told me, “Not like that. You aren’t just copying pictures. The thread tells stories of our past and future. You need to choose carefully what you bring into your life.”

I asked what she meant, but she shook her head.

At home, I scoured the internet, but couldn’t find the meaning of the pattern I had been practicing.

It was Peter’s grandmother, Svetla, who told me when I tried to describe it at family dinner.

“It’s bad enough you don’t want children, but to stitch the sign of a child’s death?” She shook her head, indignant as if I had murdered a child.

§

On my birthday, the old women all pitched in and got me a book of old Bulgarian embroidery patterns. Donka handed it to me, wrapped in a delicate cloth. “These are the traditional shevitsi. They tell the stories of Bulgarian families. These are the stitches on the edges of our clothing, and here”—she touched the coarse blouse over her chest—“on our hearts.”

My eyes teared up. It had been over a year since I felt like I was part of something. I embraced Donka, crushing her bent and hard body to me, inhaling her sour scent.

§

That night we invited Peter’s friends to a restaurant for dinner. They laughed and joked, and I couldn’t keep up with their words or the never-ending glasses of rakia they sipped. As the evening wore on, I slipped my embroidery from my purse.

Peter’s friends laughed at me.

“Not yet a mother, and she’s already a baba!” one said, clapping me on the shoulder.

Another brushed my thigh. “Better to concentrate here, while there’s still life.”

I clamped my legs tight together and wiggled away, closer to Peter’s chair.

Peter threw an arm over my shoulder and kissed me sloppily on my cheek. “Don’t worry,” he assured them. “We’re working on it.”

I froze beneath the weight of his arm and the stench of his breath, and the men laughed harder, slapping their thighs. The women laughed, too. Their smirks were closed and twisted. Some joke I couldn’t understand. I never understood anything. I had to get out of there.

I told Peter I had a headache. They could continue on without me. No, don’t worry about me walking alone in the cold, dark night.

At home, I turned up the space heater and slipped out of my jeans. I stared at the place the man had touched, and my head swam. I rubbed the tender skin. All I wanted was to be part of the country my husband loved so much. And I wanted him back.

I scrambled off the bed and pulled out the book the women had given me. I took off the cloth and folded it carefully, sandwiching it behind the cover. The contents were divided into sections: signs of protection, healing, fertility, identification, communication, and decoration. Which of those could possibly help me? I let the heavy pages fall open. The tree of life stood proud and simple before me. A symbol of beginning. Of belonging. Of protection. Of Bulgaria. I took out my kit, threaded my needle, and began.

§

Later, in the moonlight, Peter’s hand slipped between my legs, and I winced as his fingers ran over the fresh wound. He paused, and then lowered his hand slowly back to the edge of the roots.

“What’s that?” he murmured. He was too drunk for concern to bleed through his words, but there was curiosity. One of his hangnails caught on a stitch, and I moaned.

He sat up and yanked off the blanket. “What is that?” he repeated, pointing to the small patch on my leg. At that point, it was confused by blood and scabs.

I ran the meaty part of my middle finger over it. “It’s the tree of life.”

“But … why?” he sputtered.

I shrugged, reached over him, and turned off the lamp. There were no words to explain how I felt, and when my bare skin touched his, he forgot his questions.

§

That first one healed, and Peter grew to like it. He’d put his face down by it, stroke the now clean threads, and whisper, “My Bulgarka.”

I flushed under his close inspection. I might not have the same blood as his people, and I might never give him a kid, but I belonged with him in his small town with icy streams and high mountains. I had proven my dedication.

Peter drank less, I learned the language faster, we took walks in the woods, and everything was perfect. So what if I was bored during the day, flipping through television stations to find something near my level to listen to? I took up cooking, learned to season and oil pork for musaka, and to roast peppers and simmer tomatoes for lutenitsa.

“The perfect Bulgarian wife.” Peter’s thumb always found its way to my shevitsa. The tree of life⁠—my new birth⁠—our secret.

§

The holidays were the hard part. We’d squeeze into his grandmother’s village house with his parents, his sister and her two kids, his aunts and uncles and their children, and their children’s children. Generations stuffed in that house like sausage coming out of its casing.

Svetla made the sleeping arrangements. Her wrinkled face had a spark of young glee when she announced Peter and I would sleep on two narrow, tapestried benches in the basement. Again. We didn’t have any little ones, so we could stand the rough accommodation. Oh, and could we keep the fire going in the boiler room?

Peter slept soundly, and I was left stumbling out of bed every two hours to put another small log into the sooty burner. I hissed and grumbled. “They’re punishing me because I don’t want children. Well, the joke’s on them. We’ll be sleeping down here when we’re ninety. She’s not getting a great-grandchild from me.”

But only the worn carpets heard me, and they had no pity. When it wasn’t too cold, I took my pillow and wool blanket from the too-narrow bench and curled up on the carpet. I traced my fingers over the sun-bleached threads. Their patterns were familiar—the same triangles and rhombuses used in embroidery. The carpets held stories of engagements and weddings, children and grandchildren. Around the edges were the zigzags of protection.

I wanted that protection, too. Peter’s family hadn’t given me that unconditional love he had promised. But what if I could take it? The love, the protection, everything he had hinted at. I took out my embroidery kit.

Waking up Peter to ask for his lighter was out of the question, so I held the needle in the fire that warmed the family. As they slept snugly in their beds, I sanitized my sliver of steel.

My wrist was more difficult than my thigh. I had to weave my way around the surface veins, careful not to nick them, leaving just enough room for them to expand with my pulse. But I had gotten better at embroidery. I could make the elbetitsa, a star that reached out in all eight directions, with my eyes closed.

I didn’t close my eyes, though. I watched as the needle slipped under my skin, found the place where it met with my layers of fat, and slid. Pulled. I watched the thread go in green or yellow and come out coated with thick, slick red.

My anger stilled beneath the song of the thread, and my pain subsided.

When Peter woke up and saw my work of art wrapped around my wrist like a cuff, he wasn’t horrified or surprised. He was angry.

“Here? Now? My family will think you are insane! Is that what you want?”

I shook my head and twisted my wrist over so he could see where my veins converged and my heart beat. There, beneath the zigzag, between the flowering elbetitsa, was a small square. I rubbed my thumb over it.

“What?” he whisper-shouted so no one would hear.

He’s a man. He never learned the meaning of the symbols. I wanted to tell him that two triangles, stuck back-to-back to make a square, were a symbol of me leaving my family and joining his. But he wouldn’t understand. He found a bandage, wet it, and carefully wrapped my wrist. He spoke to me in rough Bulgarian, purposely taking away the tenderness we shared in English. “You can tell them you burned yourself making pancakes.”

I started the cooking stove and found a bag of flour and milk. He grabbed eggs from the storage cellar. I wasn’t great at pancakes, but we needed a plausible lie.

§

Svetla came down the narrow steps as if she felt her stove heating up and her oil being used. She glared at me as I ran a fork wrapped in cloth over her cast-iron skillet. Her narrow, wrinkled eyes pierced me, then landed on my bandaged wrist.

“What’s that, eh?” Her accent was thick with Russian, and I was never quite sure if I understood her.

“I burned myself,” I murmured.

“Burned yourself?” She cackled along with the breaking wood in the fire. “How can you have burned yourself if the pan isn’t even hot yet? Move over. Let me.”

I shifted to a crate next to the stove and let her sit on the chair in front of it. She licked her finger and touched it to the pan, then shook her head and looked at me sidelong. “Donka says you’ve been learning the shevitsi.”

I tipped back, leaning against the cold window. “You know Donka?”

Svetla smiled, and for the first time, I didn’t sense cruelty beneath the twist of her lips. “She taught me the shevitsi, too. But she doesn’t understand, does she? The kind of loneliness that creeps in.” She shifted her weight and touched the pan again, this time jerking her finger away. “Why do you stay here? You don’t like Bulgaria.”

“I like it,” I protested.

“Not enough to give yourself to it.”

I fingered my bandage, wincing at the pain beneath it. “I love Peter.”

“Enough to accept who he is? All the way to his roots? You think I don’t understand. That I’m just an old woman. But I do. I understand how much a foreigner has to give up to join a family.” She lifted her tattered and patched vest over her head, nearly falling backward with the effort. But her blue eyes twinkled as she righted herself. She pulled her stained white shirt to one side to reveal the top of her sagging breast. Stitched to it was the circle: the highest symbol of fertility and motherhood. Circle within circle, concentric colors that housed the cosmic mother and the fruit of her womb.

My hand reached out to touch her stitches, and I shivered when they traced the space where her toughened skin met the silk cords.

The twinkle in her eyes dimmed as she held her calloused hand over mine. “I still feel that deep loneliness. The one that comes from being torn away from familiar soil and transplanted somewhere new. Every. Day.” She squeezed my fingers tightly, crushing them in her hand. “Cuttings will always have scars that sprouts from seeds can never understand.”

She peeled back the still-damp bandage and stared at my bloody wrist. “Your stitches are even. Your patterns are strong. But that’s not enough. Sometimes you have to give up part of yourself to fit into new soil.”

Peter came in and kissed his grandmother’s cheek. “Is there coffee ready?”

He saw my bare wrist and stopped short, glaring at me. “Now that baba is awake, let her cook. You go get dressed.”

Cover yourself. I heard his message and flushed beneath his angry embarrassment.

§

Embroidery is a series of tiny stitches. The real artists work in minuscule measurements, invisible to the eye. In, out, you feel the swelling of the thread rather than see it. When the stitches get that small—that tight—it’s amazing how many you can fit on a patch of skin.

I took to wearing bracelets to disguise the cuffs needled around my wrists. They looked like an intricate bangle, paying homage to traditional shevitsi. Luckily, those were in fashion. When my crosses and flowers and suns grew too high up my arm and too low over the joints deep in my hand, I started on my ankles.

Sometimes I went a month, maybe two, without a single stitch. But then we would attend a wedding, or Peter would stay out all night without calling, and I would get the special kit with silk cord I kept by my bed. Long skirts and pants gave me free rein over my legs. I stitched protection charms that peeked out from beneath my cuffs and, higher up, pleas for intimacy and love.

“In, accept; out, me,” became my breath. The flowing blood was my sacrifice. The itching as the scabs dried and healed and flaked and then grew again was my penance.

For what? What crime had I committed? All I had done was follow the man I love across continents to be with him. Was that so bad?

I thought about going back. Not just to England, but all the way back to the States. Spousal visas had been frozen, but I could still go. On my own. I could leave Peter behind. Maybe it was time to admit my love for him wasn’t enough. All these threads I was stitching, weren’t coming together into a tether.

Donka noticed me drawing away. She stiffened next to me at our weekly meetings until, as if she could no longer hold it in, she burst, “You’re leaving!”

I had told no one of my plan. But I had found my passport and looked for plane tickets. I had checked my debit card⁠—desperately lacking since I still depended on Peter for income.

“I … I’m not …” I stuttered.

She sucked her teeth and tossed her head. “Don’t leave. Come to the Babinden lunch with me. Next week. You’ll see you belong here. You’re a Bulgurka.”

§

“Why d’you want to go to that?” Peter snorted from his armchair where he watched his football team losing, his posture slumping with every sip of beer that disappeared from his glass.

I stared at him. Surely the man I followed to Bulgaria was there, beneath the shaggy hair and tracksuit. Somewhere, around the eyes and in the corner of the mouth.

“They’re my friends.” Three years and I still hadn’t found friends my own age. I tried, but all the women seemed to be busy with kids. No one had time for a hike in the woods or even a cup of coffee. Except me. I had nothing but time.

“Babinden isn’t about babas. It’s for midwives.” He kept his eyes on the screen, or else he would have seen me go pale.

“It doesn’t matter. I said I’d go.”

I didn’t add it was the last time I’d see them before I left. I had messaged an old friend, and they had purchased me a ticket. I was out of there.

§

Babinden came crisp and cold. Peter left for work in his usual sour cloud, and I pulled a lace shawl Donka had given me tightly around my shoulders.

She lived near the center of town in a small house behind a high, brick wall. The house looked out of time and place as if it belonged in a village a hundred years ago. So did the old women entering the gate. They wore the traditional Bulgarian garb: heavy black skirts and vests over flowing white shirts. Every edge of the fabric held lines of embroidery. The hem of the skirt, the cuffs of the sleeves, then again at the armpit where the vest crept down towards the elbow. Over everything, they wore elaborate red aprons with vertical patterns.

My eyes jumped from outfit to outfit, reading the history of each woman through her clothing. I’d seen traditional outfits before, of course, but they were usually hand-me-downs. Young dancers wore skirts that belonged to great-grandmothers, unaware of what their clothing claimed. These women had all stitched their own outfits, and it was as if their souls were bared to me. Every child, or almost child. Hidden loves. Broken hearts. Burials and christenings. They were plain to read.

“Anna!” One of the women saw me hesitate at the gate, kissed me on both cheeks, and linked her arm through mine.

Women were packed into a small room, laughing and surrounding Donka. Even Svetla was there. I made my way to her side. “I didn’t know you were coming.”

Svetla laughed in a free and open way I had never heard from her. “Donka helped me give birth to every one of my children. How would I not come?”

Some women lay towels and socks over Donka’s shoulder, others set baked chicken, bread, and wine before her. In return, she dipped a geranium sprig in water and flicked it playfully in their faces. They laughed and winced and, for a moment, looked like little girls instead of old women.

Someone offered me zhenska rakia. I declined, admitting I had never taken to the sharp alcohol. They laughed and put a small cup with a spoon into my hand. Inside was a thick syrup around chopped fruit. I took a hesitant bite. Zhenska—women’s⁠—rakia, was delicious. A pang of sorrow swept through me as I swallowed as if I might miss this.

One of the women started a song, low and steady, in the corner. The other women joined in, their voices blending into a vibrato that shook my chest. Even Svetla sang along. I wanted to ask her what the words meant, but it didn’t matter. The depth of the song went beyond words.

The day crept on with eating and singing, warm embraces, and drinking and laughter. Then, one of the women shouted that it was time for the washing, and I was swept into the garden by a flood of tittering women.

Donka stood in the center, her sagging cheeks rosy. Women pecked at her like birds, removing her headscarf and apron, untying her vest, taking away her skirt until she stood in her white shirt and rubber clogs. The women turned on the spigot and cupped their hands beneath the icy water. I shivered as they poured palmful after palmful over Donka, rubbing it into her clothing and over her skin before kissing her and embracing her tightly.

“What are they doing? She’ll freeze!” I hissed at Svetla.

Svetla teetered and grabbed onto me for stability. “It’s tradition. This washing allowed her to bless all the babies that she helped birth and the young mothers who were to give birth. Her touch blessed them with easy childbirth and healthy children. Of course, now they go to the hospital, not to Donka.”

“It’s a shame. No more children. No more fresh young brides,” another woman broke in. She looked me up and down. “You’re a young bride, though.”

I laughed awkwardly. “No, I’m not.”

“I may be old, but I can still see. You’re a young one. And you’re married. To a Bulgarian, right?”

“Well, yes, but …”

“Donka!” she cried through the confusion of the washing. “Donka! You have a bride to bless!”

Suddenly hands were pushing me forward. I dug my heels in, but it was like the spasm of a birth canal, pushing me down to where Donka waited in just a thin shirt.

I had told them I didn’t want a baby. Over and over. They kept saying I’d change my mind. Poo-pooing my protests. But I was leaving. I could let them have their one day of fun. I gave in and let myself be carried forward by their desire. Their laughter nipped at me like the salty foam of the sea, forward, back, but ultimately pulling me to the shore.

Then I was in front of Donka, and they began disrobing me. I don’t know what I had expected—sprinkling with the geranium and a few words. A kiss. Not this.

I spun and wiggled to get away from their pinching hands as they undid my top and pulled off my jewelry. They left my jeans on, but they revealed the shevitsi I had sewn into my arms. A hush fell over the women, and a still sobriety hung around us as Donka reached for my hands. She ran her fingers carefully over the stitching.

“Do you know their meanings?”

I nodded.

She guided me to a kneeling position, then sitting, and finally lying, my bare back against the freezing ground. I didn’t shiver though. The heat of fear and shame kept me warm.

Someone handed Donka her kit, and she pulled out a needle and separated a black thread from her bundle.

I tried to sit up, but strong hands pinned me down. Mouths whispered for me to hush, and I realized I was whimpering.

“Let her,” Svetla croaked into my ear. “You want to belong. We can make you belong.”

Tears welled in my eyes. I didn’t want to belong. I was leaving. But my mouth wouldn’t speak.

Donka sprinkled her holy water on the tip of her needle. When the sharp point touched me, it felt nothing like mine. My stitches turned me numb. Her sharp jabs and fast tugs hurt. I bit my lip and tried to twist away, but I couldn’t move. The weight of an entire generation was on me. Pinning me. Forcing me to feel their pain and open my heart.

I couldn’t even close my eyes. They stayed open, seeing a blur of red headscarves and gray clouds, threatening to cry.

Then it was over. My chest dripped with hot blood. They helped me up, took me inside, and dressed me. They gave me wine and hot bread. They took me to a mirror and showed me the stitches Donka blessed me with: the circle.

§

I stayed. Their curse worked, and before the scar on my chest could heal, I was pregnant. Fatherhood changed Peter. Not back into the man I had followed, but into someone I could depend on. He was attentive to me as our child grew in me. And after. He adored the little girl.

“Shevitsa,” I demanded we name her.

“That’s not a name,” he told me. “That’s a hobby.”

“It’s her name.”

I love Shevitsa, of course, but sometimes I watch her running in the grass and my heart stabs sharply against my circle like it’s a prisoner banging on the bars, desperate for freedom. When it pounds too hard and I think it might burst out, I hold Shevitsa to me, and the beast quiets again.

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