This story is by Dobrina Angelieva and won the Readers’ Choice Award in our 2022 Fall Writing Contest. You can find all the writing contest stories here.
Dobrina Angelieva is from Bulgaria. She works as a police officer—a job she deeply enjoys, but she also follows her passion for writing. She has a couple of short stories awarded in national writing contests and some of them are published in Bulgarian collections of short stories.
The waters of the dam glimmered alluringly between the trees beside the meandering road. Dozens of cars, caravans, and tents, piled up on the waterfront, appeared, as well as the fishermen, standing at a close distance from each other, patiently awaiting their catch.
“I assume this is the place,” said Michail, and he turned his Jeep down a gravel road to the left. While passing by the sign “Swimming forbidden!” the two gals on the back seat gave each other a perplexed glance, whereas the young lads at the front smiled mischievously. They all got off the vehicle and started looking around the place.
“Oh, our Bulgaria is so lovely, isn’t it? Look!” Maria sighed, and her friend Elena nodded in agreement.
Michail looked across the wide dam, the mountains that surrounded it and the dense pine forest on the opposite shore. It was as if the nature really wanted to show off its beauty. A gift from God . . . and complete tranquility. Only the waves quietly splashed the shoreline as if they were afraid of waking somebody up.
“We got unbelievably lucky, right?” said Petar. “To find this very spot unoccupied. So no one will bother us.”
While they were unloading the trunk, a rusty truck approached from the dirt road. Without turning off the engine, an elderly man with stubble stuck out of the open window. The driver scanned the juveniles and their luggage, scratched his beard, and spoke.
“Lads, don’t stay here! Go somewhere up the road; there are other places more suitable for camping.”
Petar shouted out, “Thank you, but we want to stay here!”
“This place has a dark history . . .” the man began to speak, but was interrupted by Michail.
“Don’t worry; we know what we’re doing.”
The old man shook his head, tried to say something, swallowed it, and mumbled, “You know best.” He waved them goodbye and left.
In this moment, Elena exclaimed, “Hey, come see something!”
Everybody went to the shore and she pointed to the water.
“I’ve never seen anything like this before. It looks quite ominous. Guys, are you sure?”
Petar smiled like an excited kid, whereas Michail stepped forward, absorbed in thought.
A crooked part of a gravestone protruded from the sand, eaten away by the water, and covered with dried-up algae. The gentle waves splashed it and washed the fading inscription—“Luybchevo village: populated during the 15th century, displaced in 1960.”
“Yes, this is the submerged village,” Michail stated. “When I found out about it, I realized I must visit it. However, I found no information about any other divers coming here so far.”
“Well, we’re still rookies, but there’s no way that it hadn’t been explored before—such a thrill shouldn’t be missed,” said Petar with excitement.
In the early afternoon, Michail and Petar took out the diving equipment and started preparing for the dive. In a couple of minutes, the sky darkened, weighed down by leaden clouds. It frowned as though it was angry with somebody. The colors of the water and the surrounding forest uplands faded into the gray range. The weather got chilly.
“Please, don’t be late, okay?” said Elena. She ruffled Petar’s blonde forelock and kissed him.
“Bring me a souvenir, Misha!” said Maria.
The young men put on the wetsuits, checked each other’s equipment for the last time and headed to the dam.
Michail was swimming forward in the dark green waters. His flashlight rays lightened the first gravestones remaining from the sunken village cemetery. A thick layer of mud covered most of the inscriptions. He heard his heart quickening its beat but tried to control his emotions. Petar appeared next to him, swimming around the tombstones.
They continued to the center of the dam and went deeper. Soon Michail noticed the ruins of the first buildings. They were roofless and the walls were almost completely destroyed. They started swimming around the debris. Michail sensed a sound he had never believed he would hear underwater—a bell ringing. He stopped breathing for a while and lent an ear. The knell recurred. Petar touched his hand; the boys gave each other a look and swam among the houses in search of the source of this unusual sound.
The old church looked untouched. The divers crossed themselves and entered inside. All of a sudden, the black devil effigy appeared before them. The men flinched and the flashlights trembled in their hands. Only this image had survived the water, out of all the frescoes in the sanctuary. Michail felt goosebumps under the wetsuit. The bell continued ringing as if for a funeral. Petar and he understood each other with just one glance and swam back to the houses.
After a while, the blonde man waved the other to come closer. He showed Michail a house that was nearly completely preserved. Its gate was lying on the muddy bottom and the men entered the first room. They found a pushed-over wooden table, a cabinet with rotten drawers hanging from it like the decaying flesh of a cadaver, an old rusty stove, a metal candlestick, buried in the mud, and a porcelain kettle with a crab on top of it.
Michail carefully lifted the candlestick, which would make a convenient souvenir, raising a sandy puff, and the crab hurried to hide itself inside the kettle. In that moment, a naked human figure appeared in front of the diver and stared with a murderous look right at him. The creature had a wrinkled pale gray face with huge lusterless eyes and a creepily opened mouth full of sharp teeth. Michail felt his heart pounding in his ears, his breathing became more rapid; the air bubbles coming from the dive regulator started boiling in front of his eyes. A strong arm with webbed fingers reached out and grabbed his wrist. The diver pulled away abruptly, dropped the candlestick and swam to the nearby chamber. He toured the room with his flashlight and saw Petar in one of the corners. His eyes were so big as if they were about to explode. He waved and shook his head distraughtly, breathing too hastily. Another monstrous figure of a younger man came out of the darkness and headed towards Petar. The blonde man energetically swam for the way out. The creature followed him, reached out and caught his leg. A powerful stream of air bubbles erupted from the young man’s regulator. He furiously fought back, somehow managed to tear himself away and swam outside the house. His flashlight sank slowly to the bottom.
Michail tried to calm down his breathing. The pointer of his pressure gauge had reached the red zone, which meant that the air was about to finish. The two cadaverous human figures reappeared, revealing their pointy teeth to him. Panic grabbed his body. A third figure of an elderly man with thin white hair swam up and stood between him and the two other creatures, looked him in the eyes and nodded in the direction of the gate. Michail vigorously thrust himself aside and swam out of the building. He detected his friend’s rapid breathing again and found Petar entangled in an old fishing net. He rushed to him and reached for his knife, appallingly realizing that it was missing. He tried to release his friend from the net, but the panic stiffened his hands.
Petar ran out of air. Michail looked at his own manometer again—he had a couple of seconds left to breathe. He looked into Petar’s eyes and gave him his standby regulator. Then he took out his own—he had been gritting his teeth so tightly that he barely even opened his mouth. He removed the buoyancy compensator with the air tank and emerged from the water.
“During the socialistic regime, mostly during the sixties, the Bulgarian government tried so hard to manifest technological progress and started constructing dams hastily under the leadership of the Soviet Union,” explained the policeman to the three deeply grieved juveniles. “The people whose villages fell into the dam calyx were forced to destroy their own houses and emigrate to neighboring provinces. Then, they inundated the villages, along with buildings, community centers, churches, even graveyards, as it is in our case. However, in this village, the two strongest and most valiant men—a father and his son—refused to ruin and abandon their home, which they had built with much hard work, deprivation, and love. The militiamen, the policemen during that time, shot them down inside their house and didn’t even allow their relatives to bury them. A year later, when the dam had been finished, the eldest man of the family came back and drowned himself so he could be reunited with his son and grandson. This is the story of Luybchevo village. Many legends and superstitions were born around it. How many of them are true, I have no idea.” The policeman shrugged.
But Michail already knew.