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Of Storks and Fire Dancers


On the feast day of Saint Constantine and Elena, tourists gather in the villages of southeastern Bulgaria to watch the centuries-old tradition of fire dancing. These nestinari dancers, moving in a trancelike state barefoot on smoldering embers while holding the icons believed to protect them from the fire, carry out a ritual mixing Eastern Orthodox beliefs and pagan traditions from the Strandja, a mountainous region stretching into northern Turkey.

As described in Stork Mountain (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, March 2016, £8.99) by Miroslav Penkov:

"Every year, for thirteen hundred years, the nestinari dance. Come spring, come June, come the feast of Saint Constantine, the feast of Saint Elena, they build tall fires, three cartloads of wood torched and burned to embers. And then, barefooted, they take the saint's invisible and holy hand and plunge into the living coals. The drum beats wildly, the bagpipes screech. Sickness and worry, happy and bliss - the fire consumes them all. Here in the Strandja Mountains, where the nestinari dance, the fire leaves nothing."

The Strandja, also spelled Strandzha, is known for more than just the fire dancing. It is a somewhat mysterious region rich in folklore, legends, and myths. It is an area marked by diverse fauna and flora. Its houses have a "ground floor with walls of neatly fitted stones, where back in the day the cattle slept. The floor above - a deck with walls of wide, oak-wood planks; a covered corridor encircling the rooms, a terrace, and in one corner, the privy." The Strandja villages, inhabited by Christians and Muslims, Bulgarians, ethnic Turks and Greeks, are rooted in the traditions of the past, mostly keeping modernity at arm's length.

And then there are the storks. "Each year, on their way from Africa to Europe and then back, the storks passed over the Strandja Mountains." They flew over the Via Pontica, the ancient Roman road running along the shores of the Black Sea. "The nests in the branches were heavy with mating storks. But these storks were smaller than the others in the village. And they were black." White storks are much more common but black storks, and one bird in particular, are constantly present in the novel whose title pays them tribute.

It is to this mystical, enchanting region that the unnamed protagonist returns from his family's self-imposed exile in the United States. "And there on the hem, in the hills of the Strandja, written on the map in a font different from that of all other villages around it, was nestled Klisura. It was to Klisura I was now headed. It was in Klisura that my grandfather was hiding."

The young man tells his grandfather "about [his] failed studies in America, about [his] lost scholarship and hefty student loans." His grandfather, once exiled from the Strandja himself, resides on the family's property. "It was this land, or at least my share of twenty acres, that now I had returned to sell," his grandson relates.

The return to the Strandja gets off to a bad start when a hot, dry dust-laden wind called a simoom traps him in a bus station, covering everything with sand scooped up from the Sahara. There is illness in the village - some of the young girls are burning with an uncontrollable fever that possibly can only be relieved if they dance in the embers like the nestinari. There are tensions too, between the village's Christians and Muslims, between those who want to hold onto their land and those who want to sell their houses to make way for the construction of wind turbines.

Life in Klisura is filled with the story-telling of legends and lore of a revolutionary past, with tales of the soldiers who traveled through and conquered the Strandja, and of the gods and goddesses who ruled its rolling hills. These tales fuse fact and fiction, especially during the long, heavy winters when the nights were "dark and lonely", with the wind "polishing the snow into an icy crust." Mysteries and secrets abound, and love as well. The folklore and wonder of this compelling novel remain in one's mind for a long time after reaching its end.

Miroslav Penkov was born in 1982 in Gabrovo, Bulgaria. He arrived in America in 2001 and completed a bachelor's degree in Psychology, followed by an MFA in Creative Writing at the University of Arkansas. Miroslav is an Associate Professor of Creative Writing at the University of North Texas and the editor of the American Literary Review. His short story collection, East of the West, won the 2012 BBC International Short Story Award. Stork Mountain is his first novel.

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