Fables and Fertility: Pobiti Kamani
Koji A. Dae
© Copyright 2018 by Koji A. Dae
Honorable Mention--2018 Travel Nonfiction
Pobiti Kamani is my favorite place in Bulgaria. As a tiny desert, it feels like home to me. When I feel lonesome and miss Arizona, I return to Pobiti Kamani to help ground myself. The amazing tales I've heard about the geological formation since my first visit have only increased my appreciation for this land formation.
My husband’s parents lived in Varna, Bulgaria, and we tried to visit them at least once a month. We packed our son in our station wagon, came down the winding mountain road, and followed the foothills east until the mountains receded south. The lush greenery of the Balkan Mountains faded to the light green and wheat-yellow of grasslands. Towards the end of the trip we would pass a strip of white desert called the Pobiti Kamani. It was so small I would miss it by chatting with my husband or turning to hand a bottle to our toddler.
Pobiti Kamani was nothing like the Sonoran Desert of my youth. The Sonoran Desert swallowed me whole. I hiked for days and never found her edges. Pobiti Kamani was just a thin strip of land eight kilometers long, running north-south over Beloslav lake. It wasn't even a full desert, but a semi-desert; a bit of sand and stone that looked and acted like a desert despite plenty of rain.
Every time we drove past Pobiti Kamani, the tiny semi-desert called to my soul like the moon calls to the sea. At first the tug was imperceptible— my head turned or I lost track of a thought. But as years passed— and returning to the Sonoran Desert became more of an impossibility— the weight of my longing expanded into a heavy, lonesome ache. The desert. Home.
“We should stop,” I would tell my husband each time we sped past the tiny desert.
“Sure, sure,” he would agree. Like many locals, he wasn’t particularly interested in the small tourist site. Pobiti Kamani always had been and always would be. There was no point in stopping to see it. We kept driving. The strip of desert faded behind us. But it continued pulling at my heart, adding more emphasis to its call until I listened.
“We’re going to Pobiti Kamani today,” I told my husband on a clear mid-October day while visiting his parents. He had to agree. I was entering my third trimester, had recently “popped,” and had been instructed by my doctor to get more exercise. Even if the excursion hadn’t been medically sanctioned, what husband will deny a wife’s craving during the third trimester? It just so happened that my cravings weren’t for chocolate and pickles, but for the deep soul of the desert.
We left our first child with my in-laws, commandeered their rust-red peugeot, and drove the twenty kilometers out of the Bulgarian sea-capital of Varna to Pobiti Kamani. The ride was strangely quiet. The car had no radio, and I was too filled with warm satisfaction to engage in conversation. Years after leaving my home of Tucson, I was finally returning to the desert. A tiny Bulgarian semi-desert, but a desert nonetheless.
My husband parked our car next to the only other vehicle in the small lot, and we walked through a grove of trees to the site entrance. In a one-room museum shop, set into a cave made of stacked stones, we paid an older woman three leva each to wander around the main strip of Pobiti Kamani. The woman was enthusiastic to explain the history of the place. Her eyes lit up as she told us about the competing theories for how the stone pillars that looked like nails on a plank of wood hammered halfway in by careless giants were actually formed. She explained how Geologists flocked to the rocks to debate how the pillars were made and spiritualists went to partake in the mystical energy of the formations. She spoke in quick, clear Bulgarian, apologizing that there was no English speaker working that day.
Listening was difficult, not only because of the language barrier, but because I wanted to see what the site had to offer. My feet turned towards the openness of the tiny desert even as I nodded at her stories. The names of the pillars went into my head and floated back out. It wasn’t the five-meter tall, three-meter wide rocks that had been calling me. It was the subtle signs of desert— sparse, light green plants, gritty sand, dry warmth. Those were the only natural features I cared about that day.
When she finally released us, I was disappointed the Pobiti Kamani didn’t have the towering saguaro sentinels of the Sonoran desert. Instead, the stones stretched up to the sky, some of them nearly seven meters tall. They were surprisingly rough for how perfectly cylindrical they appeared from a distance. On that gray day, the pillars looked almost white— ashen and somber. The crevices climbing up the formations had a deep shadow to them, and small amounts of lichen and moss had successfully dotted small portions of them.
It was warm for October, at least warm enough to leave our jackets behind. The floor of Pobiti Kamani was a soft sand, finer than the sand at the beach, and deep enough to make walking quickly a chore. So we walked slowly. I took my sandals off, letting the grime of the dusty sand coat my feet. It only took a few steps for my feet to recognize the place my body had been longing for. The grime stuck to my skin in the clean way that sweet, alkaline earth does. It infiltrated me, sucking the water from the soles of my feet, the air drinking from my mouth and nose. The rise and fall of the rocks occasionally poking out of the sand gave me the same sensation of walking winding trails outside of Tucson. Climbing on the stone outcroppings, feeling the pores of their rough surface warmed by the low, autumn sun, put me back on the Gates Pass trail. Not that I could walk barefoot there. The desert around Tucson was sharper— less forgiving than Pobiti Kamani. It had more stones, more cacti, more snakes… more of everything. But Pobiti Kamani had just enough wisps of desert to pluck at my heartstrings.
I staggered around with my husband, nearly drunk with happiness at the familiarity of the little piece of land. The dark red crayfish cloves were still blooming, although most of the other plants had already given up for the coming winter. They gave the appearance of dried blood smeared on the rocks. We looked for the stone formations the woman had mentioned: stones shaped like a heart, the lovers, the family, and the wishing circle. Some of them we found quickly. Others we took our best guess about and made up our own stories for. We climbed the rocks, splashed in the sand, sprawled out on the stones, relishing the quiet solitude of the place.
Eventually we sat on the side of a small hill, looking out at the patch of land punctuated with pillars of stone. From the center of the desert, I could clearly see the edges, even without my glasses. The almost comical thinness of the strip reminded me of a creation myth my Bulgarian language tutor once told me. She was an older, proper woman with a strict love of her country but a warmth that seeped through her formal exterior. Over a bowl of fresh rabbit stew, she explained that at the beginning of time, God decided to divide the earth among the people. He held a meeting to give out pieces of the land to the different nations. He gave the tall mountains to Switzerland. To Finland He gave countless shining lakes. He reached into His bag, giving each nation one beautiful landmark. But the Bulgarian people were working hard in the fields. Unable to abandon their work, they were late to the meeting. By the time they arrived, the entire world had been divided, and there was nothing left for them. God had given away the great lakes, the marvelous mountain ranges, the wide plains, and even the fields where the Bulgarians had been working. They had nowhere left to go and no place to call home.
But God saw that the Bulgarians were good people, always kind and patient, and they were only late because of how hard they worked. To reward them for their dedication, He took back a little piece of land from every other nation and give it to Bulgaria. Because of this, Bulgaria had a little bit of everything— a bit of mountain, a bit of sea, some plains, and several small lakes. Bulgaria became a little piece of heaven on earth.
“It even has a little piece of desert,” I murmured to myself as I perched on the hillside, looking out over the narrow swath of land. Even tiny, it was undeniably a desert. It had the hardy succulents, the cacti, the skittering lizards and threatening snakes. As if to emphasize this point, a common wall lizard, no more than twenty centimeters long, scrambled up on the rock next to me. It lifted its small gray head, arched its neck, and stood still, as if it was declaring itself as proof of desert life.
I moved my foot, just enough to make a sound, and the lizard skittered away. But its job had been done. I was quickly falling in love. The sweeping sand seemed to sing to me with a low voice. I was certain if I was still, I would be able to hear the stories of the desert. In that moment, I decided I would listen. I would be this desert’s friend.
But friendship goes two ways. I didn’t realize when I decided to befriend what I saw as a small and somewhat pathetic desert, it would also befriend me. I had no idea it would reconnect me with parts of my feminine self I had left behind in the United States. I didn’t know it would reveal its power and personality as much stronger than I expected. As a western, white foreigner with a built-in savior complex, I didn’t realize this desert had much more to give than it could take.
My husband urged me deeper into the desert, and we began posing with the pillars. I laughed as my husband took my picture in front of the fertility rock. How could I not laugh? The tallest rock, straight and narrow, with the tip mushrooming out and split just right to look like a bare penis made me giggle.
Looking back on that picture— my eyes glistening with love for the man behind the camera, my messy bun of locs coming loose beneath my buff, my bare belly hanging out beneath a loose purple top, the cuffs of my jeans rolled up to reveal the skull tattoo on my ankle— a strange mix of pride and shame swell in me. I won’t lie and say that I felt the strength of the fertility stone coursing through me. To me it was just a silly stone, albeit a huge one. But I did feel connected to generations of fertile women.
The desert has always been a place of fertility for me. It is as if I can feel the ground saturated in nutrients, aching to support life, just waiting for the right amount of water to bloom. The picture was like a rite of passage, connecting me to the fertile desert crust, moving me along the waters of womanhood toward the sea of motherhood. The desert rocks reached up out of the ground, pulling at my heavy womb. For the first time during my pregnancy, I felt attached to the earth and to the generations of women who saw the same phallus in the stone.
But that connection to fertility was one born of Sonoran stories, and the shame I feel comes when I think of the meek women, hugging that rock, feeling it’s cool, roughness against their tear-smattered cheeks as they hope for a child.
Although I knew about the negative Bulgarian birth rate, it wasn’t until many of my friends attempted to conceive, and failed, that it became real. One by one, my friends suffered miscarriages and took fertility treatments. They turned into the type of women who came to the fertility stone, wrapped their arms around it, pressed their cheeks to it. It was meant to give these women hope, and the strength to keep trying when fertility seemed impossible.
Flaunting my own fertility next to a shrine of intimate worship for women in pain now seems garish. Perhaps if I had known the origin stories of Pobiti Kamani, I would have approached the stones with the respect context owes. As every old place does, Pobiti Kamani has several creation myths, but the darkest of them involves a small clan of rebels who went into a wild forest to evade Ottoman capture.
After a skirmish, the rebels fled into the woods to evade capture. The woods were lush, offering many hiding places. The Ottoman commander knew he would not find the rebels in the woods, so he returned to the village of the rebel leader. There, the commander kidnapped the leader’s wife and infant child.
He took her deep into the forest and demanded that she reveal the hiding spots of the rebels. A true rebel-wife, she refused to give up the hiding places of the rebels. Hoping to draw out the leader, the commander threatened to beat and rape the woman, but the rebels remained hidden. In a fit of rage, the commander slaughtered her infant. The woman cried out in anguish and threw her body over her child.
In that moment, the sky darkened, and a great storm was unleashed. The hiding rebels took advantage of the sudden darkness and sought revenge for the dead infant. The revenge was thorough— screams of pain and anguish could be heard all around the forest. The screams lasted through the night, and in the morning there was not a sound. Even the birds had fallen silent.
As the darkness lifted, the sun revealed a barren land. The streams had dried up, the animals had fled, and the lush forest had turned to stone. The bodies of the slain withered into sand and blew away. The blood painted the ground dark red and brown. For several years nothing grew. When a few plants returned, they were thorny and had a dark red tint to them. To this day, when a strong wind blows over the desert, you can hear the scream of the mother, echoing through the ages, keeping the land as a monument to her child.
It’s a sobering myth that cast my desert playground under a gloomy light. Even when I return to Pobiti Kamani and the sky is bright blue in the height of summer, the white stones stand out as if they are bones driven into the ground, marking the distress of generations. Although the desert formations are much older than the five hundred years of Ottoman oppression, so the myth can’t be true, these stories fuse the historic Bulgarian identity with the fertility of modern Bulgarians.
With this story embedded in my mind, Pobiti Kamani takes on a new layer. It is a dark layer of reverence and memorial. But it is also a layer of hope, one that showcases the strength of the Bulgarian people and their focus on family and children. Standing next to the fertility stone, I no longer look up at it and want to giggle. Instead, I see it as an eternal symbol of the force of life running through this country.
Koji A. Dae is an American writer living long-term in Bulgaria with her husband and two children. She writes both nonfiction and fiction. You can find more about her at kojiadae.ink or on twitter @kojiadae