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2023 Reading Challenge
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Excerpt: Rakiya: Stories of Bulgaria by Ellis Shuman

About the Book

Bulgaria, probably a country you know little about. In this new collection of short stories you’ll hear the voices of native Bulgarians as well as see the country through the eyes of those visiting Bulgaria for the first time. You’ll experience Bulgaria’s unique rich history and traditions and explore the country’s picturesque villages and stunning nature. You’ll get a virtual taste of Bulgarian cuisine topped off with the country’s traditional alcoholic drink – rakiya.

In the twelve stories of Rakiya – Stories of Bulgaria, you’ll meet a mother pickpocketing tourists in order to support her daughter. An elderly war veteran ashamed of his actions during the Holocaust. Two brothers hunting a killer bear. A Syrian refugee working in a Sofia bakery. A femme fatale disappearing at an international writers’ conference. And two neighbors competing to see who makes the best alcoholic drink.

The Excerpt

Mother and Daughter

There was no need for words. Lyuba urged her daughter forward, indicating with a nod which person the young girl should approach. Not the elderly man smoking a thin cigarette or the gawky teenager, his head weighed down by enormous headphones. Not the fashionably dressed woman talking on her phone or the smiling couple strolling with a baby carriage. No, none of those would do. When her daughter hesitated, Lyuba prodded her in the ribs, pushing her toward the heavyset matron laden down with shopping bags.

They had been following the stocky woman for several minutes as she made her way through a market buzzing with early morning activity. Shoppers crowded the vegetable stalls, searching for the biggest potatoes, the ripest tomatoes, the plumpest squash. Merchants stood proudly behind pungent piles of onions and green mountains of cucumbers. Voices were raised as they chanted the praises of their merchandise. Customers bargained for the finest produce at the cheapest price. And at the far side of the market, the woman filled her bags and prepared to head for home.

“Get out of my way!” she snapped after the dark-skinned girl bumped into her. She bent down, cursing as she gathered the apples that had spilled onto the pavement. “Damn Roma!”

As Lyuba hurried to the street with her daughter in tow, she laughed to herself. Just as she planned, that woman was more concerned with organizing her bags than with checking her purse.

Lyuba pocketed the few Bulgarian lev bills and tossed the wallet into a trash bin. Hardly anything! She fumed as she caught her breath. They would do better next time. Her daughter sat on a small cement wall, contentedly sucking on a lollipop. I’ll give her a few more minutes, the mother said to herself. After all, she’s just a girl.

A grim-faced policeman walked past, and Lyuba nodded at him. He ignored her and continued on his patrol. She smiled, knowing he was not turning a blind eye to her activities in the market, but rather he barely registered her presence. No one noticed her, despite her colorful ruffled skirts and the dozen gold bracelets she wore on each wrist. She was there, but she was invisible to the shoppers. And that was what she wanted.

Lyuba had a brownish complexion disturbed by a protruding wart on the side of her nose. She had once been considered beautiful, but her beauty had faded during long years spent cleaning other people’s houses and doing their laundry. Mirela, her offspring, had unruly black hair and exotic facial features that would one day attract men’s stares. When Lyuba looked at Mirela, she couldn’t help but recognize glimmers of her own impossibly distant younger self. She feared that with the hardships that lay ahead, her daughter’s good looks would fade just as quickly.

Mother and daughter—they lived in a squalid one-bedroom flat three floors up from a neighborhood bakery. Whiffs of freshly baked bread tempted them each morning, but that was a luxury too expensive to taste. Most of the time they got by on day-old loaves of black bread, given to them by the friendlier of two bakers who ran the shop. That was besides whatever leftovers they could grab from the tables at outdoor cafes and the little Lyuba was willing to spend from the money they pilfered on the streets. Alone in the city, they were living hand to mouth, but neither mother nor daughter complained. They would manage, Lyuba told herself. They always had.

* * *

Lyuba poked Mirela as she lay on the mattress they shared on the floor. “Haide! Get up. We have to go!”

Mirela didn’t say a word because she couldn’t. She had been born with a minor speech impediment and was incapable of speaking with any clarity. The girl rolled back and forth, making it clear she wasn’t pleased to be woken so early.

“Don’t start with your moaning and groaning, or I’ll give you a real reason to moan and groan!”

Mirela rubbed the sleep from her eyes and made her way to the table. She plopped down on one of the flat’s two wooden chairs, rested her elbows on the Formica and her head in her hands, and waited.

“The baker gave me this,” Lyuba said, handing over a piece of pumpkin banitsa. The flaky pastry was still warm. “Eat it. But make it quick!”

A short while later, Mirela followed her mother down the three flights of stairs. Overflowing garbage bags nearly blocked the landings; the stench of urine filled the air. A single lightbulb did little to light up the stairwell. When they stepped outside, Mirela was drawn to the bakery’s entrance, mesmerized by the enticing aromas and the calico cat purring under the counter

“Come along! What’s with you today?”

They lived a short distance from a busy thoroughfare and had grown accustomed to the clang of the ubiquitous trams. Traffic jammed the street, even at the early hour, and Mirela hurried in her mother’s footsteps. A shop owner stared out at them from a ground level window, muttering obscenities as they passed by. Morning diners filled the tables of a streetside coffee shop, patient dogs panting at their feet. Mirela stopped to stare open-mouthed at a waiter carrying a tray of breakfast items.

“This way,” Lyuba said, pulling her daughter along.

Their route was one they took at least once a week. “Never go the same way two days in a row,” Lyuba explained. “After all, we don’t want anyone to become too familiar with us.”

When they stopped at the corner, Mirela looked at the waiting pedestrians and then up at her mother. It was not yet time, Lyuba answered with her eyes.

* * *

“Does Mirela go to school?” the friendly baker had once asked Lyuba, as the girl stooped to pet the cat. The man was outfitted in white, his clothing spotted with batter. He had a kind face and spoke with a Middle Eastern accent. He may have once told Lyuba his name, and the name of the country he came from, but she didn’t care to remember.

“No school for her,” she responded. “I teach her everything she needs.”

“What about her father? She has a father somewhere, doesn’t she?”

“Not that I know.”

“Are you capable of providing for her? You come here every day expecting food.”

“I am not a beggar!” Lyuba insisted, although she knew his intentions were good. “You share bread that doesn’t sell, but don’t you think I am begging!”

“Dobre, dobre,” the baker replied, stepping back as if to apologize. “But if you ever need anything, you come to me. I am willing to help.”

“Yes, everyone is willing to help,” Lyuba said under her breath, but the baker had already returned to his oven.

Of course, Lyuba wanted what was best for her daughter, but she didn’t trust anyone. No one else could take care of the girl, not with her speech problems and her needy nature. Mirela’s future would be very much like her own, Lyuba knew, and that was why she needed to be with her every hour of the day. But there was little she could do for her daughter except teach her the lessons of life the hard way.

* * *

“Haide!” Lyuba said when the traffic light changed. The two of them crossed the street.

There were few people in the square outside the Sveta Sofia church that morning. An elderly man wearing an ill-fitting suit shuffled across the pavement before collapsing on a wooden bench. Three fashionably-dressed women on high heels conducted an animated conversation at high volume as they skirted around him. A priest cloaked in black consulted what looked like a prayer book as he headed to the church’s entrance. A businessman switched his brief case from one hand to the other as he hurried to an appointment.

Lyuba and Mirela crossed the square as if they had an appointment of their own. As if they had somewhere important to go. As if they belonged.

“You stinking Tsigani! Go back to where you came from!”

Lyuba ignored the insolent teenagers standing to the side, but their taunting upset Mirela. As one of the teenagers spat at them, Mirela clung to her mother. Lyuba dragged her along, and they turned the corner. It was there that Lyuba spotted the couple ambling up Vitosha Boulevard, the main shopping street of the city.

She could see they were tourists. The man wore beige shorts and a bright orange T-shirt; an open camera bag was slung over his shoulder. The woman, dressed in a casual blouse and jeans, stared with interest at the glitzy merchandise in the display windows. Expensive stores, where Lyuba would never dare set foot. The two of them were laughing, joking, oblivious to the broken sidewalk or the heavy traffic.

Lyuba stepped into a doorway, pulling her inattentive daughter with her. She peeked out and saw the woman open her shoulder bag, searching inside for something small. Lipstick perhaps. Lyuba shook Mirela hard, as if her daughter needed to be woken up for the second time that day. She raised a finger, and Mirela understood she should wait around the corner.

Lyuba followed the couple up the street until they paused outside a men’s clothing shop. The woman pointed at something in the window and that is when Lyuba bumped into her side. The woman nearly lost her balance and leaned on her husband for support. Confused at first, she felt the strap of her bag on her shoulder and breathed a sigh of relief.

As Lyuba disappeared among the pedestrians standing at the intersection, she imagined the couple’s conversation. “How rude!” the woman would initially remark, and the man would ask, “Are you okay?” Looking inside her bag to discover her wallet missing, the woman would become hysterical, suggest calling the police. The man would try to calm her down and tell her they needed to immediately cancel her credit cards. The woman would reply that being pickpocketed had ruined their entire vacation. All of this exchange would take place in a language Lyuba would never understand, just as her actions would never be understood by filthy rich foreigners, or by anyone, for that matter.

The couple retraced their steps along the busy street toward their hotel. As they neared the next corner, a shy young girl approached them. She held something in her hand and offered it to them when she got close. The woman grabbed her wallet and the girl stepped back, an innocent smile on her face.

The woman frowned, seeing that her cash was gone, but her credit cards and driving license were still in place. The man pulled out a five-lev note from his pocket and rewarded the girl. Within seconds, she had vanished from sight.

When Lyuba and Mirela returned to their apartment building in the afternoon, the baker was standing in his doorway. He dropped his cigarette to the ground and stamped it out with his foot.

“A social worker came looking for you.”

“What do I need that for?” she replied.

“You may not need her, but the girl—” he said, gently touching Mirela’s head. The girl crouched down, searching for the bakery’s cat.

“I provide for her!”

“I didn’t say that you didn’t, but you shouldn’t turn down help when it is offered. We need all the help we can get!”


“Yes, us outsiders. I will never be a Bulgarian, even though I’m already here ten years now. You must feel the same.”

“I am Bulgarian!” she declared, but deep in her heart, she knew this was not entirely the case. Although she had lived her entire life in Sofia, she would never be accepted as a true resident of the city, nor recognized as an equal citizen of the country. She was despised, detested, discriminated against. People swore at her, spat at her, called her names. Her clothes were considered odd; her body odor made them turn away in disgust. She spoke the language with an accent, making grammar mistakes and lacking proper enunciation. Even her rotten teeth set her apart. It would be the same for Mirela when the girl grew up.

“She should go to school,” the baker said, repeating the suggestion he had made so many times.

If only Mirela could get a good education, Lyuba thought. If only someone could cure her speech impediment. If only she, the girl’s mother, could give Mirela a better life, a better future. But that would never happen!

Lyuba dismissed the baker’s concern, pushed her daughter forward, and together they climbed the stairs to their cold, dark apartment.

Excerpted from RAKIYA – STORIES OF BULGARIA by Ellis Shuman. Copyright © 2024 by Ellis Shuman. Published by GenZ Publishing.

About the Author

Ellis Shuman is an American-born Israeli author, travel writer, and book reviewer. His writing has appeared in The Jerusalem Post, The Times of Israel, and The Huffington Post. His short fiction has been nominated for the Pushcart Prize, and has appeared in Isele Magazine, Vagabond, The Write Launch, Esoterica, Jewish Literary Journal, San Antonio Review, and other literary publications. He is the author of The Virtual Kibbutz, Valley of Thracians, The Burgas Affair, and Rakiya – Stories of Bulgaria.

Find Ellis online at:

  • Author website: https://ellisshuman.blogspot.com/
  • Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/ellisshumanauthor/
  • Twitter: https://x.com/ellisshuman
  • Goodreads: https://www.goodreads.com/author/show/1529444.Ellis_Shuman
  • Amazon: https://www.amazon.com/stores/Ellis-Shuman/author/B00B68OVJ6

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