The road to hell is narrow, bordered by a serpentine river and sheer mountain cliffs that swagger upwards and out of sight. Road signs warn of tumbling rocks, landslides, car crashes at the blind corners. The weather is fair and crisp. My husband drives our rented Peugeot. He does this calmly, effortlessly, while I sit in the passenger seat and stare at the road unblinking, as if I might intuit the speeding approach of a brakeless eighteen-wheeler or the meteoric plummet of falling rocks. But what would I do if I could? A car bound for hell will get there one way or another.
Dyavolsko Garlo, the locals call it. The Devil’s Throat. A cavern plumbing Bulgaria’s Rhodope Mountains. The site where, according to legend, Orpheus descended into the underworld to seek his beloved Eurydice, who had died of a snakebite soon after they wed.
My husband is six feet talljust a touch taller than meand sturdily built, with thick brown hair and facial scruff that arrives in an inexplicable rust-colored red. Driving has put him in a quiet mood. His fingers strum the steering wheel, tapping along with the pop-folk flowing from the radio: accordion strains overlaid with brassy vocals praising easy money, women.
“The Devil’s Throat,” reads a sign, “44 km.”
My husband and I love one another, but our marriage feels like a sham. This is one of our problems. The other is living in Bulgaria.
Eurydice had died too soon, so Orpheus traveled to hell to bring her back. Orpheusthat famous Thracian, the musically blessed son of Apollo and Calliopehad strummed his famous lyre at the feet of Hades and Persephone, pronouncing his heartbreak in melodies so sweet the cold-souled King of the Dead was moved. So moved, the story says, the king shed iron tears. Plunk. Plunk. Plunk. The noise echoed through the underworld.
My husband and I have lived in Bulgaria for six months, lived in this country often confused for other places. “You’ll have to brush up on your French,” said a friend before I left the U.S., believing me bound for Algeria. “Enjoy the northern lights,” said another. Bulgaria is one of the forgotten nations once tucked behind the Iron Curtain, its cities now stocked with crumbling Soviet tenements and silent factories and stray dogs too hungry to bark. In the winter, in Haskovo the city where I teach English to three hundred hardened teenagersthe air thickens to a gray haze as residents burn brush and scraps of trash to heat their homes. The smoke makes me cough, makes my eyes sting, makes my thoughts turn dark.
Today, though, we have left Haskovo. We have left winter as well. The first spring blossoms are starting to show, forsythia yellowing the countryside. As the road to the Devil’s Throat continues its manic winding route through the Rhodopes, we pass the occasional village of squat red-roofed dwellings, laundry lines strung with colorful underwear like prayer flags. Chickens bustle after bugs. Kids kick soccer balls on smears of new grass.
“21 km,” says a sign.
Even in the presence of spring, I feel nervous. I can’t help imagining the ways we might die on this mountain road, squeezed between cliffs and a squalling river. It’s a bad habit of mine: envisioning worst-case scenarios. I picture our car tumbling end to end over a ledge, the windshield shattered, our bodies flecked with glass. I do this despite also worrying that if I envision such things I might make them come true.
My husband gives no sign of noticing my nervousness. He’s absorbed by the purely physical task of driving. Or perhaps by thoughts of what’s to come: this purported entrance to hell. A myth made real. A myth, in many ways, still in the making. Odd things are said to happen inside the Devil’s Throat. Having rushed down from peaks of the Rhodopes, the Trigrad River enters the cavern in a spectacular waterfallthe highest in the Balkansthen disappears into an underground siphon. No one knows where the river goes, what it does, as it courses through the earth. If a person were to send a log into this siphon, or a marked flotation device, it would never come out. There have been two diving expeditions, back in the Seventies. Both divers disappeared; their bodies were never recovered. Since then, no one has tried.
“5 km,” says a sign. The landscape begins to change. Cliffs lean over the road, as if to engulf our car, swallow us. As we gain elevation, the air turns chilled, icicles spearing down from the rockface like a thousand sharpened teeth. The river changes too. The water becomes wilder, more tangled as it scrambles past the skinny leafless trees lining the river banks, their branches decked with pale shreds of shopping bags. They have a wraith-like quality, these shreds. They look like the torn edges of ghosts.
I imagine our car flipping sideways, the cold spill of water over my limbs.
My husband taps his fingers to the music, turns the radio up.
Samo mi pokashi chmi obichash, croons a young man. Just show me that you love me.
“She died too soon,” Orpheus sang to Hades, strumming his lyre all those miles underground, his words echoing through the fleshless spirit world, the legions of the dead. “We had so little time together.”
Bulgaria has its share of gifts. There are the savory delights of homemade lyutenitsa, the noisy neighborhood gatherings on warm afternoons, the layered history that places Thracian ruins next to Byzantine churches next to Ottoman mosques. But the country is also stymied by poverty, youth-drain, and the worst corruption in the E.U. Recently, Bulgaria experienced a wave of self-immolations. Citizens burned themselves on the capitol’s steps because there seemed no other way to protest. The gulf between Communistic orderliness and the promise of Capitalist salvation has stretched wide and grim and endless. My role, as an English teacher, is to help bridge that gulfto distribute language like a currencybut my job often feels like thinly veiled imperialism. Really, I’m a cultural missionary, sponsored by the U.S. government, stationed abroad in a not-so-subtle bid to win the allegiance of young Bulgarians. “The West,” they should learn to say, without rolling their R’s or pronouncing their I’s like E’s, “has our best interests at heart.”
Regardless, my teaching hasn’t been especially successful. My students receive my lessons with jaded apathy, view me with suspicion. Some speculate that I’m an FBI agent. Maybe they aren’t so far off. I tell them to call me “Mrs. McElroy,” using my husband’s surname. It feels like an alias. I don’t use the name anywhere else. After school, I return to our apartment, take off my wedding ring. My husband does the same. Our rings don’t feel natural. These cheap gold zeros we purchased at a pawnshop: we got them for our slapdash wedding, planned a day in advance, so that my husbandthen boyfriendcould get his visa paperwork.
“You must be the first people in history,” a friend said, “to get married for a visa to Bulgaria.”
I look at my husband, driving the car with quiet concentration, his eyes fixed forward, his jawline scruffy with an encroaching beard. I wouldn’t have gone abroad if he hadn’t come with me. And if I hadn’t gone abroad, we might not have signed those binding papers. The two things feel inextricable nowBulgaria and our marriagewhich in turn feels problematic. My husband has become part of the great gray weight of this country, the crush of its despair. He doesn’t have the pressure of a government job, or even legal working privileges. Because of this, I often get resentfuleven angryespecially as my inner film reel of calamities spins ever faster. But these emotions also make me feel ashamed. Perhaps Bulgaria, if anything, has kept us together: rendered us co-dependent in a city with no other native English speakers except a pair of skittish Mormons. Perhaps beyond Bulgaria we will disintegrate, dissolve.
Perhaps he has his own resentments.
My husband continues to drive, his lips sealed, his mind distant. I wonder if this is how marriages begin to end. Not so much in shouting as in silence.
“Please,” sang Orpheus. “Give us another chance.”
My husband pulls our car into a parking lot, empty. On one side a sheer cliff rises, a tiny doorway at its base like a mouse hole in a Tom & Jerry cartoon. A man knocks on our car’s windshield and tells us that tickets to enter cost five leva each. The tour starts in ten minutes.
We get out, stretch our legs. My husband produces a notebook and begins to scribble observations, glancing around at the jagged peaks, the arrow-straight pine trees, sniffing the sharp mountain air. Feeling the pang of exclusion, I take out my own notebook and make my own scribblings. We stay in physical proximity, but barricade our thoughts. This is a far cry from when we first started dating, both transplants to a new city, both unable to resist the contents of the other’s mind. My future husband would invite himself over to my apartment to swim in an old over-chlorined pool, and there we would bob in circles, talking and talking until our fingers pruned, doling out our lives to one anotherso much at the beginning of something that every word felt like a new invention.
Now, though, it seems more like an incursion to share the thoughts inside me, to unravel my knotted anxiety, to expose the hot coals lining my mind.
We pay for our tickets and walk into the mountain. Behind us comes the tour guide speaking with sardonic familiarity to several young Bulgarian couples who had arrived at the last minute. The men have a toughened demeanor, their heads shaven, their bodies lumpy and neckless beneath their tracksuits. The women wear shiny leather jackets and tight jeans, cigarettes balanced on their fingers, lips plumped, eyebrows plucked, hair pulled back tight enough to stretch skin.
We hurry on ahead of them. As we descend, the air turns stale. The tunnel walls press closer. I sink into subterranean unease, imagining earthquakes, the suffocating trap of a collapsed ceiling, a mountain river rising too fast to escape. My breath quickens. The tunnel worms deeper, well beyond the reach of natural light. Piss-colored lamps line the path, their glow throwing more shadows than illumination, dim phantasms cast here and there disguising the tunnel’s turns until, finally, they reveal a huge cavern thundering with the muscular plunge of the river.
The Devil’s Throat is ballroom big. Ceilings swell upward as if inflated by sound. On the floor, puddles gather and glint from the waterfall’s spray. Dark patches of bat colonies fleck the walls. There is a musty smell. I feel disoriented, both by the river’s roar and the heady hugeness of the space. My husband disappears into a dim corner, scribbling in his notebook. The ache of exclusion becomes unbearable. I call to him but he does not hear me. I call again. I call and call and call.
At last he comes, putting his arm around me. We lean over a railing, marveling at the sheer force of the river. It feels good to look closely at the same thing. It feels important. I suggest that we should each send something into the river. We should send something to be taken into the earth and never returned. A feeling maybe. Or a fear. My husband likes this idea. With exaggerated decorum, we both make silent vows of absolution, then spit them into the river.
Resentment, I think. Anger. Be gone.
Then I hug my husband, fiercely, as if to rediscover the strength in my own body, my own solidity, my own living form.
Hades shed iron tears and they dropped to the ground with a plunk, plunk, plunk, his sympathy sounding through the underworld. “Go,” he said to Orpheus, to Eurydice called up from the depths“go live long full lives and return when you are ready.”
The tour guide and the Bulgarian couples are coming up into the cavern behind us. Their presence seems to push us forward, out, as if the men’s wide-legged swagger, the women’s eye-rolling, might poison our moment of intimacy. We move through the cavern, across the slick ground, past a stone altar where pilgrims have placed glittering piles of copper stotinki, red and white bracelets called martenitsi, and little portraits of saints. Then we come to three hundred steps. “Do not attempt to climb,” reads a large sign, “if you have a fear of heights, claustrophobia, high or low blood pressure, diabetes…”
The list continues on, naming what seems like every conceivable ailment. My spirits falter. What if, I wonder, one’s mind inevitably spins through deadly scenarios? What if one often loses hold of her real world?
“There’s just one condition,” said Hades to Orpheus, about to climb out of hell, to take Eurydice with him. “Listen closely…”
We begin climbing. My husband first and then me. The steps are narrow, puddled with mud and slippery with river spray, steep. If a person leans backwards, even slightly, she will plummet. She has to grip the railings tightly. She has to grip them even though they are made from iron rebar and are shockingly cold, almost too cold to touch. Even though she feels dizzy with the foreboding workings of her imagination.
“…Until you have reached the living world, do not look at your wife. Do not look back.”
Too cold to touch, and yet they must to be touched. Must be squeezed and clung to. I long for gloves. I long to put my hands in my pockets or to warm them with my breath, and yet to do such a thing would mean giving in to gravity, grasping at air until I’m dashed on the rocks, flung into the churning river that would suck me into the earth and make me disappear.
Hades’ instruction: at once simple and impossible, arbitrary and inevitable. Orpheus traveled up and out of the underworld, Eurydice close behind, whenand here different versions of the story provide different explanations, though the action remains the sameOrpheus could not resist glancing at his resurrected bride. He looked back. And when he did, death reclaimed Eurydice, drew her down into the underworld forever.
Ahead, on the stairs, my husband climbs steadily towards a crevice of light.
Orpheus was heartbroken, the stories tell us, bound for suffering and hardship and death by disembowelment, but I have always wondered about Eurydice. Was she also heartbroken? Or was the look, in a way, a thing of comfort? Orpheus had lost her, but she had gained him.
“What, then, could she complain of,” writes Ovid, “except that she had been loved?”
My husband pauses climbing, turns to look back at me briefly. Then he continues. He has made sure that I’m okay, that I’m still going. Perhaps this is marriage, I think. It’s not the paperwork, signed for one reason or another; it’s two pairs of feet making the same steady climb, the same bid for light. Two souls seeking the same fate, doomed or otherwise.
I let my scared self fall backward, peel away, that ghost of me, bottled up and angry. I grip the railings tighter. I scramble upward after my husband, back into Bulgaria, our daily struggles, our yearnings, the grayness and the poverty, and I hear the waterfall roaring in the cavern behind me, the Devil’s Throat loud with its heady music, made from a river tonguing deep into a mountain, carrying things in and bringing nothing out, like a lover’s heart, a promise, a tale told for the dead as much as for the bereaved.
Allegra Hyde is the author of the story collection Of This New World, which won the 2016 John Simmons Short Story Award.