The Fire Dancer

Author: Maria Pavlova

Translator: Dr. Juliana Chakarova

Published in the anthology “Voice from the Planet“, issued by “Harvard Square Editions”

Original: “Мъката на Богородица”


Joanna would never forget that first dance. Since then she danced every year on the day of the Saints Constantine and Helena. The power always came to her on this day, but the memory of her first dance was the clearest . . .

The fire was still going strong, it wasn’t time to step in yet, but something golden in the fire was drawing her in. Joanna became more and more impatient, unable to resist — she felt like a butterfly drawn to a lamp. She wondered whether butterflies were fire dancer’s souls that kept flying back and forth between the earth and the sky because they missed the warmth of the embers and didn’t want to leave this world. The logs cracked and her fingers cringed from the cold. Silence with a hint of frankincense filled the meadow. She never knew where this fragrance came from, but it was there every year, and she felt it. Her heart sank and she tightened up remembering what had happened . . . The logs were cracking and her fingers turning white and numb. In a little bit the fire would calm down and it would be possible to step in, but some irresistible power was already pushing her in — it was becoming as big as the whole world and even bigger. Everything would fit in it: like a thread box that is so ordinary but you could find green thread and blue thread, brown thread too, a big needle and a small one, safety pins, and scissors, and a thimble . . . Suddenly the fire looked as if somebody poured water over it, so she could step in without fear. The fire turned good and empty. Joanna was emptying herself too, just the suffering remained. It got smaller, but even after she danced it didn’t completely disappear.


Five years ago her husband had died in the World War. It happened in February, during the last year of the war when she got the message that Vassil had been killed. The two of them had loved each other very much. He was so caring and would do anything for her. She took good care of him too: sewed shirts for him and smiled, kneaded bread and smiled. Her smile was always on her lips. They had known each other since they were kids, had married young and always lived happily. They had been through poverty and illness, but love was always there and nothing was missing. Their love was like a fireplace in winter and a cool breeze in summer. People talked about them a lot and tried to protect them from the evil eye by spitting over their shoulders.


In June that same year when she got the terrible news, Joanna danced on fire for the first time. Since then the power always came to her . . . She wondered if she would dance this year too. She always wondered. Tomorrow there would be fire again, for the fifth time since that year. Joanna sat on the bed. She was afraid to go to sleep. There was some bright light outside — was it the moon or a lamp, or one of Vassil’s caresses, still alive, still shining? Her eyes dimmed, she sighed. If she could only go peacefully to sleep! That was all she wanted — to fall asleep and have no dreams.

When Vassil died, her pain was excruciating, but there was something worse than that. Sometimes, on occasion, she had a dream about him: he suddenly died and she didn’t even know where he was, she couldn’t find him, as if he didn’t even exist. She looked for him and he was nowhere to be found, as if he evaporated . . . She would wake up with such heavy, dark pain in her heart that it was beyond all bearing. She would get up and walk around the house. This pain scared her — her heart squirmed, her soul too. Joanna walked from one room to another with her arms around her shoulders and wouldn’t stop for hours. Sometimes she would even walk the streets. The dogs barked at her in the beginning but then stopped. Nobody could go to sleep on a night like that if they heard her because people knew that until this spell was over it would be a pain not only for her, but also for the Mother of God.

During those years she couldn’t stop crying and grieving. Her eyes dried out. Now she was living again somehow, she even laughed on occasion. She planted rose bushes in the garden, but her dreams would come back and this unbearable anguish wouldn’t stop. Joanna wasn’t afraid of dying. She wanted to because she didn’t want to live without Vassil, before the Mother of God stopped her.

Joanna wasn’t afraid of living either, she would manage somehow, but she was afraid of waking up after such dreams. She wouldn’t live through another spell like that, Joanna thought every time — her little heart would take no more pain. She was like a bird squeezed by a rock and felt as if she would pop. Only the fire would lift up the rock a little. Not that she could fly away, but at least she could breathe.

Joanna wasn’t young, but was in good shape. Her thighs and breasts weren’t drooping; she had a few gray hairs and some wrinkles around the eyes, but that was all. She hadn’t given birth, they didn’t have kids. They tried, but had no luck. Vassil wanted kids very much. He even suggested adopting, but Joanna refused. She was hoping they’d have their own child. She remembered his face, his warm eyes. She couldn’t even bury him — the body wasn’t returned. She stepped unprepared into this pain and her wound wouldn’t heal. Her life shrunk, squashed, like everything in the village. Only the fire made her softer.

Those dreams came more often in spring. Everything woke up, only Joanna stayed the same. She would still feed the livestock and knead bread, but this was a habit, even her grief became a habit. It got worse after February, until the day of the saint. The only redemption was the fire. Sweet as cherry, almost bringing oblivion. It healed her. The minute she stepped into the fire her head would become empty. If the dance was a lie, as one boy from town put it, it was a good lie. Far from everything else. And what a dancer she was! Nobody ever danced like her. Her dance was so light! As if somebody moved her, her arms, her body; something made her sweep the icon over the fire like wind — it was some power, invisible and strong. Her feet sank into the embers up to the ankles, but she felt like she wasn’t even touching the coals. Joanna would scoop the embers with her hands, as if she was spreading stars, transparent stars — she was scattering beauty around.

Everybody that watched Joanna felt strange; she looked as if she was flying. During those minutes she had no age, had almost nothing to trip her besides the traces of her grief, but they were bearable and almost faded. The line around the fire would take her to a place where nobody — neither the fire dancers, nor other people that stepped in the fire — could follow her. They weren’t able to go as far as she went. It was a gift, Joanna’s gift. There, in the fire kingdom, she was alone and had the feeling that there was something waiting for her — she felt it better than all other people surrounding her in the village.

While Joanna was dancing the embers felt warm, but not hot. The first time she danced it surprised her. She also felt light and warm, but she knew she had to keep moving. If she let herself give in to this feeling she would stop and burn her feet. The others had told her this: she had to make sure she didn’t fall into oblivion and had to keep moving.

That first year she almost died dancing on the fire. It would have happened if the Mother of God hadn’t stopped her. That morning, after Joanna felt the power, she decided to join Vassil. She had already considered this, although it was a sin. But the Virgin Mary didn’t let her do it. She told Joanna to change her mind. Joanna still remembered the Mother of God, as if she was standing before her now. The Mother of God appeared to her dressed in a neat gray gown that was simple and formal at the same time. She was wearing a necklace made of polished gems. Her hair was braided.

“Don’t do it, Joanna, don’t do it!” she told her sternly standing outside of the fire circle.

Joanna recognized her right away. The others froze as if they were painted there. The fire stopped too, became thinner. The moment the Mother of God appeared was a long one. She looked at Joanna severely, but with love. A little before that Joanna had stopped her dance. She froze, both her feet buried in the embers. She thought it was time. She didn’t want to live without Vassil and couldn’t bear suffering those dreams anymore. Nothing was keeping her here. And at this very moment a dragon jumped out of the calm fire — a dragon woke up, as if from the abyss, and jumped at her. An awful pain cut through her body. Joanna wanted to sink entirely into this pain and escape the long lonely days and even lonelier nights, her wretched wandering around the empty rooms and streets. Her grave would be here. And then the Mother of God appeared, looked at her and scolded her in a moment that seemed too long.

“Come back, Joanna! Where are you headed? It’s not time yet! I know what you are contemplating, but you can’t do that. You shouldn’t! There is still something good waiting for you!”

Joanna screamed and stepped out of the fire. The Holy Mother’s words scared her because Joanna was religious. She fainted to the wet ground. After this experience the healing process was long, but she came around and everything was okay. A miracle had happened and she had survived. The Virgin Mary had come to her, had bent and touched her feet, taking away the pain and the deepest wounds. That’s why Joanna recovered, and it wasn’t very painful when they put ointment and later urine on her wounds. Joanna didn’t even have marks on her feet. The people in the village didn’t remember any miracles like that.

Nobody appeared to her during the dance ever since. Joanna had visions, but not while she was dancing. Other fire dancers also rarely had visions while dancing . . .

Ever since that day, the Virgin had appeared to them with wounds all over her feet. All fire dancers would see her like that. Joanna cried when she saw her again. The other fire dancers and people who couldn’t see her cried too. In August people would come from all of the nearby villages: the rumor about Joanna’s and the Virgin Mary’s pain had spread. People bowed to the icon in the church and silently cried.

“Poor Mother of God, why are you suffering like that for me? I should’ve died and gone to Vassil. You shouldn’t suffer!” said Joanna when the Virgin Mary appeared to her the next spring.

“You have enough pain in your heart, Joanna. When you stop hurting, I’ll stop hurting too.”

The village, nestled in the woods of Strandzha Mountain, withered; like something inappropriate, children’s laughter would startle the grown ups; the trees became smaller and the woods grew silent.

Joanna didn’t believe that her anguish would go away and that something good was waiting for her. She felt sorry that the Mother of God would have red feet forever. She felt ashamed about what happened. Nobody blamed her, everyone wanted to help instead. They tried to cheer her up. There was always a neighbor with her so she wasn’t alone. Joanna came around and her face got back its color, but her dreams wouldn’t go away. People would make the sign of the cross when they heard her wander the streets.

“Joanna, poor Joanna, don’t do that, my daughter,” the neighbor, Rada, an old woman, told her once. “Don’t do anymore sins against your soul. Why are you doing that?”

“I’m like butterflies, grandma Rada, I can’t find a place for myself.”

“Well, Joanna, listen to the Mother of God,” the old woman said and made the sign of the cross, “and there will be life for you!”


Five years went by in this way, until one morning before the big holiday. Joanna almost didn’t sleep a wink because she had just had one of those bad dreams, and now she was terrified. She looked at the bag with that medicine some doctor from town had brought to her so she could sleep without dreaming. She took it a few times and fell into deep sleep, without any dreams. But then the Mother of God appeared to one of the old fire dancers, and asked him to tell Joanna to stop. Joanna obeyed, what else could she have done? Why was she still keeping the medicine? She took the bag to the river and threw it as far as she could. And that’s when a man on a horse appeared before her, dressed like a policeman, with a hat and a gun — it was Saint Constantine. Joanna recognized him, even though he appeared to her for the first time.

“Joanna, you have to do something today! Go to little Milenka and help her! Hurry! It doesn’t matter where you go, but don’t leave her alone! The Mother of God wants me to tell you this. Take it as an order. And tell the others to clean the holy spring well — last time it wasn’t clean!”

Joanna was confused. “Milenka? Who is Milenka?” she asked.

But the man had gone, vanished. Joanna ran to old Neda, the chief fire dancer, and told her everything. Neda was quite surprised.

“Joanna, are you sure it was Saint Constantine himself? Is that’s what he said?

“Yes, grandma Neda, he said we should clean the holy spring better this year.”

“We cleaned it already, but if he said so, we’ll do it again. People don’t have as much faith these days. No wonder they don’t clean it well. I got that, but what about the rest?”

“He told me to take care of Milenka, to help her and not leave her alone. Have you heard anything about her?”

“No, dear Joanna, I don’t know who Milenka is, but I’ll go find out. She must not be from around here.”

“But then why would Saint Constantine tell me about the Holy Mother’s order?”

“I don’t know, I’ll ask and tell you as soon as I find out. You go now and take a rest. You look exhausted.”

Joanna went home, but felt restless. She swept the front yard, cleaned the house, expecting the old fire dancer to come. Then some neighbors came and she told them about the holy spring and Saint Constantine. She asked them about Milenka too, but they didn’t know who she was.


After this, when she was left alone, Joanna went into the big room and opened the chest. She rarely came into this room since Vassil’s death. The memory of Vassil was the strongest here. She opened the chest for the first time since he was gone. There she kept her dressy outfits. She spread them on the bed. Ran her hand over the embroidery and a long gone feeling like a small spider crawled over her fingers. She touched her cheek with the soft material and paused like that. Closed her eyes and sighed. Then she put everything away and had a bite to eat. Soon after that old Neda and three more women came to her house. She invited them to come and sit down at her table, but they refused.

“Joanna,” Neda shouted, “I found out at last! Milenka is from the nearby village. It’s not that close. She is a little girl, an orphan. Her mom and dad died years ago. There was a storm and they went to check on the livestock, but a beam fell over them. A thunderbolt caused the beam to fall and started a fire. The house burned down too. A distant relative is taking care of the girl now since she has nobody else. But that woman has six kids of her own and can’t afford to keep her anymore. That’s what I was told. The family hardly made ends meet. Recently the husband got sick, so they are wondering what to do with the girl. Since the Mother of God ordered you to, you will have to go, Joanna! Do what she told you to do!”

“But why, grandma Neda? How can I be of any help to her?”

“I don’t know, my daughter. You have to go and then we’ll see. A cart is waiting for you outside. Ivan will take us there. We are coming with you too, how can we miss that! Hurry, get ready so we can be back before dark.”


Joanna got ready quickly. She wondered why the Mother of God was sending her to see this little girl — how could she help her!? The cart moved and Joanna grew silent. Everybody was waving at them. Something strange haunted the village. It was so different from their usual gray days and made their hearts quiver. Even the ones who didn’t believe in fire dancers were waiting to see what would happen.

The village was small, but everybody felt that something big was happening. Maybe that’s why the news spread so quickly. In the other two villages on their way people greeted them and wanted to hear first hand what the Mother of God had said, but Neda kept repeating that they were in a hurry, so they moved on without stopping. Some were pointing at Joanna saying: “That’s her!” as if she were a leper. But there was no malice in their words. Instead they were filled with deep feeling. Joanna looked at them biting her kerchief – she felt uneasy about being the center of attention.

The cart finally arrived. The local people told them where they should stop the cart. The house was small, with a thatched roof, and looked even poorer than the other ones in the village. As soon as they arrived a woman came out to greet them. Two little boys ran after her and started chasing each other. She scolded them and then looked at the guests.

“Please, come in. I don’t have a lot, but I can find something to put on the table for you.”

“Don’t worry, Kera. Isn’t that your name?” the old woman Neda said. “We are not hungry. We came for something else. The Mother of God ordered us to come.”

“I know, I know.” Kera made the sign of the cross and was followed by the other women. “Which one is Joanna? Was that you that the Mother of God asked to take care of Milenka? Oh, the girl is good, but I can’t afford to take care of her anymore. Even my own kids are starving. People are helping us, but they have their own cares. I have to give her to somebody else. It’s not something I can do anymore.”


Tears filled the woman’s eyes. Startled, Joanna turned to her. She looked gloomy and very exhausted; her skirt was torn. At that moment her eyes were drawn to the door. There stood a little girl, about five years old. She had on a worn, but neat dress; her black hair was braided around her head. The girl was skinny and had huge curious eyes. She walked timidly toward them and stopped next to Kera.

“That’s Milenka,” the woman said and stroked her head.

Joanna leaned toward the cart. The girl was looking at her.

“Is it you the Mother of God sent to take me?” the girl asked.

“Yes, that’s me.” Joanna said and tried to smile, but couldn’t. Her mouth was dry. She felt more and more uneasy: a lot of people gathered around. The girl came close to her, hugged her shyly and then drew back.

“Are you gonna dance on the fire tomorrow?”

“Maybe I will, maybe not. I don’t know yet.”

“I want to watch you when you dance! Doesn’t the fire burn your feet? Is it true that because of you the feet of dear Mother of God are all burned? Is she in pain? We have a little jar with lard, you can give it to her and . . .”

“Be quiet, Milenka!” Kera scolded her. “Another time she wouldn’t say a word, and look at her now! Enough asking, you shouldn’t do that!”

Joanna didn’t answer — she didn’t know what to say. Then she asked Kera if they could go inside and talk in private. Joanna had a hard time stopping the other women from going with them. When they were finally alone she felt a little better. The house was poorly decorated. There was no bed. Kera’s husband was lying on the floor in the other room. The two women talked for a while. Joanna told Kera about herself. Kera in turn told her about Milenka and about her husband Mitko’s illness. Little of that was new for both of them, but they didn’t know what else to say. Joanna started thinking how to excuse herself.

“I can’t take care of the girl. I’m sick — I have problems with my nerves. And I don’t know anybody from our village who could take care of her. I can find some clothes and food for her, but I can’t do anything else.”

“The Mother of God wanted that people heard about Milenka,” said Kera and tears welled up in her eyes again. “Maybe somebody in town will hear about the girl and take her. There are rich and childless women in town, somebody may adopt Milenka and give her a home. It’s a shame I can’t take care of her, but we don’t have enough food for my own children.”

“Don’t worry!” said Joanna and for the first time felt a little relaxed. “It’s not your fault! You took care of the girl for one whole year! Maybe the Mother of God wanted what you mentioned. We are going to head on now, before dark. I’ll find clothes and food and send them to you soon.”

She went outside and told the old woman Neda about her conversation with Kera. Neda didn’t want to leave without Milenka, but what would they do with her? Joanna couldn’t sleep, she would scare the little girl if she woke up again and started wandering the streets. If somebody else takes her, they’ll have to give her back too. They said goodbye and left. Everybody was silent. There was something unfinished, but nothing else could be done. People in these lands were poor through and through — they also had poor imagination. They were expecting a miracle, but didn’t know how to help or what to do.

Before she left, Joanna said goodbye to Milenka.

“Don’t you want to be my mother?” the child asked quietly. “My mom died. My dad died too. The animals also died. They all burned. The lightning killed them. Only the cat is still alive. He is here, but doesn’t worry and doesn’t eat much. He is happy to have some bread.”

Joanna looked at the girl. She felt sorry for her. What a pity she didn’t bring anything to give to the girl. She promised herself to bring her gifts and remember her. She also prayed in her heart with the hope that a good woman from town would take Milenka and give her love and a home.

“I can’t be your mother, Milenka, because I’m sick and can’t even take good care of myself. Aside from that, I have a garden and some livestock. It’ll be enough for us, but my health is not good. And you’ll move to town anyway and go to school there. I also went to school. I can read and write; I have read books. My daddy wanted for us to be able to read and write. Then he died too and we became poor, but first we got an education. I lived there when I was a kid. It’s nice there, you’ll see. You’ll see, everything will be okay.”

Then Joanna gave her a hug and headed back with the others. The girl watched Joanna go away and waved at her until she was out of sight. They got back to the village in time. Again the news had already reached the village, but this time nobody waved at them. People looked tired. Joanna had a bite to eat and went to bed.

She woke up after a dream and heard the roosters. It was somewhere around three o’clock. Joanna listened. The night, torn by crickets chirping and dogs barking, didn’t match the anguish she was filled with! Joanna got up quickly, put on her slippers and started walking around the house. Other fire dancers felt pain too, but it was different. It came from the power. It made them surrender and dance. It was bearable, but her anguish was impossible to bear.

Then Joanna grew angry with Vassil. How could he leave her alone! No man had touched her all these years; she wasn’t feeling herself anymore. Why was she even alive, what kind of life was this? The clear spring night was cutting deep into her heart. Where was all this pain pouring from? “Mother of God, dearest Mother of God, why are you torturing me? I’m so exhausted. Let me go, I can’t take it anymore! Why am I suffering?”

She started thinking about Milenka.Poor girl, where would she go? I need to help her. I will send her some food and clothes. And while thinking she suddenly realized that she had stopped walking. The spell had passed. The day was breaking, but by now she was feeling better. “Look at me!” Joanna scolded herself. “The poor little girl has nobody, has no home, no mom or dad, but is doing better than me.”

Joanna couldn’t go back to sleep and was tired the next day, so she decided not to go to the sacred place where, like every year, they would sacrifice a sheep as a part of the ceremony. Joanna liked to go there early, watch women decorate the icons with flowers and listen to the first sounds of the drum and the bagpipe, but this time she didn’t go until noon. There was old Neda in the little building with some other women. They were cooking the sacred mutton soup and it smelled good. Joanna stayed there for a while, got sprayed with holy water, talked with the others and then went back home. She also used to like to go to the holy spring, but this time she stayed home. She lay down and drifted off. The moment she woke up Joanna felt that the power was finally coming down to her. That meant she was going to dance today. Like the other times something like a slight haze started covering everything. The power came or more precisely was coming. It began to pull Joanna, took over, and she felt drawn toward the fire. It was pain, real suffering. It felt the same when she was thirsty — some power drew her to the water. Thirst didn’t come all at once, but grew. What was happening now was neither good nor bad. She would just have to obey, that’s all.

She got ready to go to the glowing embers that were spread in front of the church. It was already evening. Trembles were entering her body, one by one. A part of Joanna was putting on her clothes and shoes, but the other part was surrendering to the call of the fire and following it in a deep reverie. Her hands and feet got colder and colder, the cold crept up to her elbows and up to her knees.


When she reached the fire the dances had already started. The old woman Neda passed over the embers carrying an icon and then repeated the movement. She was up to her ankles in the glowing embers. Her face was tense, her eyes closed, her movements graceful and soft. After she danced holding another icon, Neda put it down. When it was clear she wasn’t going to dance anymore, people started the circle dance.

Joanna stopped nearby. Her feet and arms were like ice now. She saw the others, heard them, but a big part of her was following the call of the fire. She almost heard a whisper: “Surrender, Joanna, surrender!” Her feet started moving on their own — back and forth, back and forth. Her hands went up, first to one side, then to the other. “Surrender, Joanna, surrender, don’t resist!” The power was calling her, pushing her, and she finally surrendered. She swayed toward the fire, the way a ripe pear falls down from a branch. The fire was mild. To the others it looked dark and red, but to her, through the haze, the fire was somewhat tamed, touched with gold. She walked over the embers and didn’t feel anything except for the rough surface. Then she took the icon and danced with it on the fire. She felt relaxed. She was here, but at the same time somewhere far away. She couldn’t understand how her feet weren’t burning, but didn’t even try — it’s God’s deed, she thought. She had to keep dancing and the rest wasn’t for her to know.

At last she stomped out of the fire. She still had power — this time the saint had given her a lot and her feet and hands were still cold. She was ready to go into the fire again, but something was bothering her. She was missing something. Joanna remembered last night. She started moving again. The others sensed that she was going to dance and gathered around her. Neda had always been the master, she had a lot of experience, but Joanna had no rival. When she danced it felt as if heaven spoke, as if it was giving the people something priceless.

Suddenly, before she stepped into the fire again, Joanna saw Milenka. She hadn’t known the girl was there. Absorbed by the dance, Milenka was holding onto Kera’s skirt,. Perhaps the dance looked like a fairy tale to the girl, and the fire dancer ― more important than a queen.

Joanna got out of the fire and approached the child. She greeted Kera and was thankful that Kera had brought Milenka. Joanna squatted beside the little girl and realized how much she wanted to see the girl again. The music stopped – everybody wanted to witness what was about to happen. The breeze faded, the woods trembled, the exhausted and wrinkled earth also prepared to listen.

Then Joanna grabbed Milenka, lifted her up higher than an icon and ran through the embers. The woman didn’t know why she did it — maybe she wanted to share with the girl what she felt. Joanna didn’t feel the weight; she ran again, and again, nine times. Finally she put Milenka next to the fire and squatted near her again. The girl was thrilled and everybody was excited — they had never seen anything like that. The bagpipe and the drum were silent.

“Milenka, you have a mother, you found your mother.” Joanna whispered to the little girl, but even the people standing far away heard that. Then it became even quieter.

“What about your illness?” the child whispered back, as if they were sharing a fairytale secret.


“I’ll take care of that now, you’ll see!”

She waved to the bagpipes to start playing again and slowly turned to the fire. Fire dancing was Joanna’s gift, and she was going to use it to heal! She ran, scooped the glowing embers up and they flew in the air as if they were feathers of a firebird. Then Joanna started the wildest dance ever — nobody’s dance was ever that long and that magical. Even the hardest of hearts grew soft.

“Heart pain, I’m stepping on you, go away!” Joanna said suddenly and started stamping on the embers. She felt the power stronger than ever. Even Vassil was here with her — he was carrying her like before and was saying goodbye.

At this moment the night in Strandzha Mountain had two skies — the astral one and the sky of sparks from the fire. Joanna was saying goodbye to her love, her warm tears falling in the fire while she was burying her love. This lower sky was only a few meters, but was alive. She wasn’t saying goodbye to a cold grave. It was warm. Soon Joanna knew that she had to get out — the fire felt hot.

The fire dancer sat on the ground barely breathing from exhaustion. Milenka ran toward her and touched the bottom of her foot.

“Are you still sick?”

“I don’t know,” Joanna replied and hugged her. “I hope not!”

And as she was hugging the girl Joanna saw the Mother of God smiling at her. The fire dancer recognized the Mother of God immediately — the night was bright. The Virgin Mary stood next to the fire, wearing the same dress as before. Joanna tried to get up, but couldn’t. All she could do was hug Milenka and look at the image. In a little bit the image faded and then disappeared.

“If you are sick, I’ll make you tea!” the girl comforted her and ran to join the other kids.

“I’m not sick, daughter, not anymore!” Joanna whispered behind her.

She breathed in the night air and finally managed to smile. Her smile lingered on her face for a long time. And that’s when she understood. She felt the most important thing in life. She had lived according to this, but now she understood it… Joanna believed that if she lived according to God’s rules, everything would be okay. She didn’t want to live after Vassil’s death, but the Mother of God ordered her to live and Joanna obeyed. She didn’t even take the medicine powder as she was told to do from above. And she was bearing her pain. So, the Mother of God didn’t lie to Joanna when she said that there were going to be better days for her. These days were here. Saint Constantine had told her about Milenka, so now she found a child and the girl found her mother. Joanna lost her love, but found affection. God didn’t forget about her.

Joanna finally managed to crush the pain under her feet, to leave it there, to rise above it. Until now the fire had helped her to rise above her pain, but only for a short time. Tonight Joanna defeated it. She wasn’t alone anymore — a child was waiting for her. She was expected to feed the girl in a little bit, tuck her into bed, tell her a story, kiss her goodnight, just like her dear mother used to do. Joanna needed the girl as much as the girl needed Joanna. They found each other because Joanna didn’t renounce God’s rules, no matter how hard it was for her.

Suddenly she saw Milenka run over the embers after the other kids, little Petar and Atanas. They were gathering coins and were probably making their twentieth round. She jumped to meet Milenka and Kera, and to rejoice in the little girl.

Joanna hadn’t seen Milenka’s first steps as a baby, but she saw her first steps in the fire. Her heart was happy.


# # #

Maria Pavlova (author) was born in the second largest city in Bulgaria, Plovdiv. She has a degree in Slavic studies and has worked as a journalist for various Bulgarian newspapers. Maria writes essays, poetry, short stories, and novelettes, some of which have been published in the press. When she started working on her first novel, The Rival, Maria took a leave of absence so she could concentrate on the process of writing. The novel tells the story of a blind girl who simultaneously discovers love, life and the feeling for colors. At the moment Maria Pavlova is working in the field of graphic design and is finishing her second novel, The Dual Life of a Witch. Maria is married and has one daughter. Her fiction and creative nonfiction have been published in Cezanne’s Carrot, Forge, Yellow Medicine Review, and Etchings.


Dr. Juliana Chakarova (translator) was also born in Plovdiv. She has a Master’s degree in Russian Language and Literature and a PhD in Linguistics. Currently Dr. Chakarova is teaching The Theory and Practice of Translation, Cognitive Linguistics, as well as English and Russian at the University of Plovdiv. Her research papers, as well as translations (to and from English, Russian and Bulgarian), have been published in numerous journals and almanacs. She published a translation of The Maker’s Rage for Order: Theories of Literature and Culture by Prof. D. Jenkins in Plovdiv in 2009 (Evro Print EOOD, 399 pp.). Contact:


This short story takes place after World War I and is based on an old tradition called nestinarstvo that is still kept alive mostly in the Strandzha Mountain range near the South Black Sea coast in the Southeastern part of Bulgaria. Bulgarian nestinarstvo uniquely combines pagan and Christian beliefs. The manifestation of this tradition is dancing on glowing embers. The closest translation of the word nestinarstvo in English is the expression dancing on fire.

Bulgarian fire dancers honor first and foremost the saints Constantine and Helena, whose feast day falls on June 3rd.

Fire dancers believe that they receive their power from Saint Constantine. They feel that the dance is spiritual, physically purifying the dancer and, as a result, the whole village.

Nestinarstvo in Bulgaria started to fade away in the beginning of the last century, its fires dying down one by one. During the last 10 to 15 years, dancing on fire is being brought back to life in the village of Bulgari and a few other places as a manifestation of will and technique, but its spiritual side is perhaps gone forever.

Learning more about the ritual and its roots, the author became fascinated with its mystery and power. She witnessed and immersed herself in the charisma of the feast in the village of Bulgari.

The village of Bulgari, or Shambala in Strandzha mountain

Author: Maria Pavlova

Translator: Dr. Juliana Chakarova


Original: “Село Българи, или странджанската Шамбала”

It is probably all coincidence, but both days we spent there one of our cameras would stop functioning at the same time. In addition, I lost many of the conversations I recorded… Well, perhaps it was destined to be this way, whatever that means. One can expect anything to happen in the village of Bulgari. I felt so different there – for instance, despite the clouds I was sure that it wasn’t going to rain on July 3rd in the evening and that the nestinari would perform. I’m not really a strong believer, but somehow I knew (as if it was the most natural thing in the world) that the saint wouldn’t allow it to rain.

A woman told me a story from some years ago – her father was on his death bed when a female fire dancer came to their house and told him, “Get up!”. The man got up and wasn’t sick anymore. Nowadays, she said with pain, people don’t believe anymore, that’s why they have to go to the doctor.

I also lost the notes about my immediate impressions from there. I would make notes while moving around. But that’s one more reason to remember everything. After all, when I started writing this material, just a few days had passed… The sound of the drum and the bagpipe didn’t make me cry unlike my husband – tears still well up his eyes when he listens to the recordings. I felt the place in a different way – it was like stepping into a fairy tale, but just making the first steps. And my nine-year-old daughter kept saying that she felt like dancing, and wouldn’t stop dancing on the street. She was overtaken by the thrill, by the anticipation of the dance – both a little scary and exciting.

In general, the ritual nowadays is what it was before. On July 3rd in the morning people take the icons of the saints Constantine and Helena out of the church and carry them to the place about a hundred yards away. The icons get decorated there using red cloth and ancient coin-and-bead strings. To the sound of the music, three boys carry the icons to the holy spring (called ayazmo) of Saint Constantine (the next day the icons are taken to the holy spring of Saint Helena). People chose a churchwarden who takes care of the icons and the holy spring. He also gave us healing water. The ritual of sacrificing a lamb continues with boiling the meat and making soup. I have to admit, I didn’t really like this part of the event.

In the afternoon, the fire dancer Mihail Georgiev who lives in the village of Yasna Poliana (I found out that his father was born in the village of Bulgari) started the fire. It was just next to the church. The music program began around five. When it ended, Mihail spread the embers around in circle, and the dance started. It was about 9:30 pm. This walking on the glowing embers lasted 4 or 5 minutes.

The event was attended by reporters from one of the German TV channels and from some Bulgarian TV channels. Most of the tourists took pictures using their cameras, phone cameras and camcorders. At one point I caught myself worrying more about the recording. At least my excuse is that I was planning to create a site about nestinari phenomena, maybe even write a book. But soon after that I wanted all these technical devices, all these fireworks of flashes to disappear; I wished they were never invented and never existed. During the dance Mihail stayed for a few seconds with both his feet buried in the embers, without moving. I wished people didn’t pollute the place like that. At moments like that I feel both the urge to be there with everybody and somehow be completely alone…

In the vicinity there were fairgrounds with stalls offering grilled sausages, beer, knickknacks. There were also tents put up next to the chapel of Saint Helena. In general, all the people saw the dance in the evening. A young woman from the village told me that she was watching the dance for the first time. Years ago on the second day of the holiday – July 4th – the icons were carried around the village to each house, and people would wait for them, but nowadays this ritual is not performed anymore.

The two days I spent in the village I lived in the house of the old woman named Zlata Daskalova, one of the most famous nestinari from the past. No fire dancers live in the village anymore – they have all passed away. I heard a story of the 18-year old man Kostadin Mihajlov from the village of Brodilovo who danced on the embers that evening with Veselina Ilieva, also from Brodilovo. A young woman also danced; her name is Marinela Gradeva… The young man told me he had had the urge to walk on the embers for a long time, but Veselina didn’t allow him to do so. One time he danced when she wasn’t there. He believes in God and says that the icon helps him. Kostadin has a lovely voice and sings beautifully – he sang just before the dances started. Have the other nestinari sung like that or do they sing like that? The idea to ask this question didn’t occur to me then. In fact, it’s not possible to bear a lot while you are in the village of Bulgari – it becomes unendurable and that’s it. If you want more, you have to come back again.

The truth is, I had read so much about the rituals that when the picture became alive, I just remembered it. A not expected, but easy to explain déjà vu. I went back in time. But I also wanted to understand some things that you can learn only by being there. For example, how hot it is around the embers after the event. Unfortunately, there were just a few logs this time, next to a car. The air was cool, and I was very close to the dying out fire while listening to the program. I could stand the heat as long as I wasn’t in the direction where the wind was blowing. And if we multiply the heat 5 or 10 times, maybe I can imagine how hot it was before.

… The village of Bulgari is nestled in the hills of Strandzha. It looks like the mountain tries to protect it from foreign eyes. As one nuclear physicists had said, he had the feeling that the word decays when he turns his back toward it, but as soon as he looks at the world, it gains back its old shapes again. We order the chaos and make something meaningful out of it. But even if this is true, when we look in the same direction, we don’t see the same. Some people see more, like nestinari. Like shamans, wise-men, kids, or people in love. Perhaps nestinarstvo is epiphany, but the interpretation, putting it into words is different for every fire dancer.

I have imagined how the mystique Shambala reveals itself, but not to everybody. How something big raises, emerges, comes to view out of the “haze” of the trees and the paths, like a diamond in the mountain, glittering from the dew. And here they are – the people who have always been there – they come to you, speak, tell you stories.

There are places, difficult for science, places marked with invisibility. Only the strength of one’s perception can help reach the depth of a place like that. With a few exceptions, nestinari didn’t have much education before. Nowadays we read a lot, dig all the time, while they didn’t do so. Actually, I’m not sure about the digging. How could I know what they had in their minds during the 363 days of the year when there was no fire? Did they think about their own power, did they try reasoning at night, did they stay awake? Did they have fears, were they spellbound? But we can be sure of one thing – those men and women devotedly believed in the power given to them by Constantine and Helena, they believed there is “the upper world” that they have to obey. When the Mother of God wanted something from them, they told it to the rest of the villagers, and people listened – build either a small chapel or a path. The icons spoke to them, whispered advise and prophecies. They felt such pains, such anguish, specifically as June started, after the fair in Vlachov Dol valley, but the fire helped them get rid of this tension.

Is it illness, is it power, or maybe something else? I don’t think anybody knows for sure. And I don’t think there can be only one name for it. But whatever it is, what’s important is that nestinari changed minds. They even do it now, but it’s not the same. Before, nestinari were charismatic, they danced for themselves, to get rid of the suffering, but they also did it for the others, maybe more so – to make them believe. They wanted to share this boundless experience, so unutterable and huge for our tiny size. It is believed that the cloth from the icon about which I’ll tell later has been intentionally dropped in the fire. Or maybe it was somebody’s kerchief? Facts intertwine with make-believe stories, names are confused, but there is something that saves the fire dancers and their clothes while in the fire – even the silk doesn’t burn at a temperature of maybe more than 500 degrees Celsius.

… The sky came down during the fire dance. We also felt particles of that miracle – it overwhelmed me and is still haunting me. Whatever nestinarstvo is, whatever trance is, this walk on embers is a road to the boundless. And if one human being can walk on embers, we all can. After those four people danced, many of the viewers went through the embers. To the best of my knowledge, nobody was burnt.

Nestinarstvo opens the celestial gates. The fire is quiet frightful while the logs are burning (I kept asking myself if witches were burned on such stakes); but it ceases to be frightful for nestinari – for them it becomes water, gold, a reflection of the boundless. This gift to tame the fire vortex is bestowed upon few. Even if it’s illness, it’s a gift to turn it into faith. That’s why it’s such a pity that there are no more fire dancers in the village of Bulgari. Instead, people from nearby villages dance on the embers. Despite that however, on June 3rd, the village turns into a special place. The past can’t be erased just like that; some day the fire in its full glow might come back to life. Like in the psychological Shambala, something bigger then the visible reveals to the few that possess the rare gift, but by entering it in their dance, those people leave traces for us, too. Like bread crumbs. The fire goes calm, becomes golden and like a tamed beast lies down at their feet.

Often fire dancers’ relatives feared the dance; husbands wouldn’t let their wives to take part in that, threatened and stopped them. And I mean, seriously threatened them. Parents feared for their kids. But we see it from another angle, maybe because it doesn’t directly affect us. And in fact, I didn’t notice that trance on the faces of the four nestinari. Perhaps that possessing is like love – rarely is it Big. Maybe I saw something that was smaller and could be easily controlled, that’s why the four of them stepped onto the embers at the same time.

… I went to the village of Bulgari, saw the event and left. The next few days I spent in the town of Sozopol at the Black Sea coast, and the fire dance vanished from my mind. I couldn’t bear it – not the dance, but the expectation, the magic of the mountain, the music that didn’t stop the whole day. As if I had dreamed all that. My life went on. Life stream is steady, and it doesn’t get easily affected by miracles. But still? Isn’t nestinarstvo, even just the feeling of that dance a bridge to the spiritual dimension? Don’t the earthy and spiritual meet and exist together for just a while? And didn’t I along with the other visitors bring at least a sparkle by just being there, so that the embers don’t die out and are not left desolate. Like in that naïve moment in the story Peter Pan when people bring the fairy back to life through their faith that she exists. I hope so. I hope that not only the village gave us something, but that we also gave it something back. I would like to remember the best side of it, regardless of the fact that there was more attraction than pure tradition.

It’s possible that I go there again. And that I meet again kindred souls, kindred seekers.
… I have the recordings of only two conversations. Here are some excerpts from them.

Ralio Petkov Ivanov, 89 years old.

«I was born here and have been living here since. This village is the oldest in Strandzha… I was a mayor once – between 1948 and 1951, the youngest mayor. My mother, Marula Stamatova Valkova, danced on fire. There were three nestinari at that time, elderly women: Mila Dimova, Marijka Ivanova, and my mother. They were such dancers, not like now. Magnificent… They had spells; between May 10th and June 3rd they really changed. They felt something, a tension. I used to ask my mother. “Well, son,” she would say, “it’s such power, you know, and when it comes, nothing can stop me, I have to get in the fire…” But now the fire is small. Back then it was at the same place, but the embers were 20 centimeters high. And they would start dancing, but what a dance it was! What you see now is made up. The real dance was somewhere until 1945. I remember one time: the icons that the fire dancers held had kerchiefs on – to make the icons pretty. And what do you know – a kerchief fell into the fire. The dancer bent over, we were looking – lots and lots of people – she bent over, holding the icon, moved around looking for the kerchief. When she found that piece of cloth, it wasn’t burned a bit. Everybody stayed in awe! I saw it with my own eyes. It’s real, pure, I was there… It was the same time when I met professor Sharankov from Sofia…»

“I have read his book. He was here twice during the event, saw everything, talked to the nestinari…”

«Yes, he was a big friend of mine. I took him to visit one of the dancers, Zlata Daskalova. He had examined her feet the day before. Then he told her, “Interesting, your feet are just like mine.” The next day he wanted to see her again. We went there, knocked at the door, and the old woman Zlata answered. It was an old little house – most of our houses are like that. She opened the door, “Hello.” The professor was staying at her daughter’s house then. They started talking, and the professor said,

“Grandma Zlata, can I ask you something?” “Go ahead,” she said.

And he was like,

“Can we arrange a meeting with you and the other nestinari? We will build a fire, you will dance and we’ll record it. We want to make a movie and you’ll get paid.”

“If you are here to talk about money,” she said, “get out of my house and the village!!”

The poor man (he was a big man, like me), he didn’t know what to do.
”I’m sorry, grandma Zlata!” he said.

She started shaking. I told her that the professor doesn’t know these things. He also kept saying,

“I apologize, grandma Zlata, I was wrong, please, forgive me!”

Finally she calmed down. She told him,

“We are not allowed to go into the fire another day!! We don’t even dare to go near the fire in our kitchens when we cook! Only during those two days we are ordered to dance at certain hours, and we don’t get burnt…”

After we left, I explained to the doctor that it didn’t occur to me to worn him. The women danced that evening and the next one. The professor checked their feet again after that.

“They are okay!” he said. “Just like before.”

… I told him,

“Professor Sharankov, it’s possible that those spells are because of nervousness.”

I meant that I felt this too sometimes when I had problems, and I had told my mother about it.

“No, son, your nervousness – it has nothing to do with what we do! Our power is from above…”

My mother started to dance as soon as my older brother was born. The fire dancers didn’t have any family connection between them. There are some younger folks now, one is from the village of Gramatikovo and has some relatives in Bulgari, but not with the fire dancers… So sometimes when there are meetings, they build a fire and dance. But it’s not the same.»

“And why aren’t there anymore nestinari in Bulgari?”

“They all died. Vesa from Brodilovo is a good dancer – she keeps the tradition alive. My power, she says, comes from above. But the others died.

Ilia Vlaev was my landlord during those two days when I stayed in Bulgari:

«Veselina Ilieva, the old woman who danced last night, went into the fire for the first time in 1983, if I’m not mistaken, after she was only a spectator and even laughed at the fire dancers. Back then she fainted near the fire, where the ropes are. Rumors say that an old woman standing next to her told Veselina,

“Daughter, you are like a piece of ice, the power got you, you gotta go in the fire.”

Veselina Ilieva took her shoes off and stepped in. And the woman who spoke was one of the youngest daughters of the old Zlata Daskalova, in whose house you are staying.”

“There were two women fire dancers with the same first name: Zlatka Daskalova and Zlatka Stamova…”

“That’s right, and I bought the house of the first one without knowing who it belonged to. I had the house sanctified because the neighbors told me that it belonged to poor people who didn’t have money to do it. Instead, they just put some holy water at the four corners of the foundation. One of the bottles was still seen. It’s so strange how the water would still be there in 2001 if it was put there in 1960, in an open bottle. I could see it through the bottle neck – the water looked as shiny as melted lead. I can’t explain that… As the tradition required, I made boiled mutton soup, had the house sanctified, and that night I had a dream. An old woman, tall and slim, came to me and we talked. She said that it was good that I had sanctified the house. And also she said many other things… The next day I told about this to my neighbor – she is from that family. She said,

“The woman in your dream was grandma Zlata.”

“Which Zlata?”

“Zlata, the fire dancer who used to live in this house. She stayed in your room during her last days and slept where you are sleeping now. You had a dream about her. It was Zlata…”

The next year Veselina Ilieva saw me in the village of Kosti and told me,

“You are Ilia, right?”

“Yeah,” I said.

“And you had a dream about the old woman Zlata, right?”

“That’s right,” I said, “I had a dream about her.”

“She told you this and this and this.”

I asked her who she was.

“Well, I’m Veselina Ilieva,” she said, “and I’m a fire dancer.”

“And who told you all this?”

“I don’t need anybody to tell me this since I’m a fire dancer, too.”

… As the saying goes, when they built fire here for the nestinari before, they would bring 12 carts of logs,, dry oak logs. The size of the embers circle was huge, and it was unbearably hot. And old women told me,

“When Zlata danced, the earth would shake…”»

So the circle closed. I have read exactly the book we talked about with the old man Ralio – the book by Emanuil Sharaknov written in 1947. The author told the story about him and Ralio going in the house of Zlata where I stayed for two days. So the conversations that I saved were completing the puzzle. My landlord told me that Zlata thanked him for sanctifying the house. I didn’t have any dreams, but somehow I didn’t allow myself to fully open to the phenomena of nestinarstvo. I don’t think I’m ready yet. Maybe some day… The source is there and is open for everybody.

“… I have no fear at all. It’s a power. You get as cold as a piece of wood, as the weather when the snowflakes fly in the air. You feel cold shivers all over your body. When the big heaviness, the suffering, the pain in your chest is gone, you feel all light and start dancing. I don’t fear that, it doesn’t make me wonder – it’s just a power that gets you…” (Zlata Stamova from the village of Bulgari)

“Why isn’t the tradition of fire dancing as strong nowadays? I think because people don’t have faith anymore, and the power doesn’t come to us like before. Fire dancing will be lost in Bulgaria and will be given to another people…” (Ilia Dimitrov, male fire dancer from the village of Novo Panicheri).

(The two excerpts are from the book I mentioned.)

Нестинарството в съвременността

Вече почти не са останали живи хора, които се нестинари и следват обичая. Това е бил езически обичай, на който църквата не е гледала с добро око. Още повече, че с разрастването на градовете, носители на съвременна култура, тази традиция се е считала за отживелица.

В търсене на последните живи нестинари

Танц върху жаравата

Нестинарството е древен български и гръцки обичай, в който хората танцуват боси върху жаравата. На снимките са показани последователно запалването на огъня и играещите върху разгорялата се жар.

Легенди за нестинарите

Някога, когато светът се размножил много и за да може по-добре да управлява този свят, Бог намислил да намери между хората някои свои помощници. За да открие кой ще бъде достоен за тази работа, сам наклал всред село Припор голям огън и казал, който момък може да го прескочи, той ще бъде негов заместник. Тогава един момък, не само, че прескочил огъня, но почнал и да играе в него.

Тогава Бог казал:

– Този момък да се казва Константин!

Но момъкът казал на Бог, че без една сестра не ще може да управлява правилно. Една мома припнала и заиграла редом с момъка. Нарекли я Елена.

Нестинарската обредност и вяра

Като се вземе предвид миналото и изследователят се придържа към достоверните факти, може да се зададе следният въпрос: Било ли е нестинарството някакъв по-особен култ, може ли да става дума за сектантско учение, което, макар и примерно външно с християнството, му е противоречало вътрешно и означава отрицание на черковната набожност? Несъмнено, същински култ, с ясно определени обреди и легенди, чужди на християнската традиция, днес вече не е налице.

По същия начин при испанското колонизиране на Латинска Америка индианците външно са приемали нормите и обичаите на нашествениците. Не са ги отхвърляли, но са ги видоизменяли и изпълнявали по свой начин. Това е тактиката на по-слабия.

Легенди за нестинарите

Някога, когато светът се размножил много и за да може по-добре да управлява този свят, Бог намислил да намери между хората някои свои помощници. За да открие кой ще бъде достоен за тази работа, сам наклал всред село Припор голям огън и казал, който момък може да го прескочи, той ще бъде негов заместник. Тогава един момък, не само, че прескочил огъня, но почнал и да играе в него.
Тогава Бог казал:
– Този момък да се казва Константин!
Но момъкът казал на Бог, че без една сестра не ще може да управлява правилно. Една мома припнала и заиграла редом с момъка. Нарекли я Елена.

† † † † † † † † † † † † † † † † † † †

В лъките на р.Велека от стари времена се е сгушило китно селце. В него по турско време хората са успявали да укрият от турците хубавите си моми. Веднъж обаче, голям турски военачалник, минавайки по пътя към Малко Търново, успял, макар и по случайност, да попадне тук. И за беда – съзрял най-хубавата мома. Нуна. Поискал веднага да я отведе в харема си. Но срещнал отпор и предложение от нея. Ще бъде негова, ако той мине оттам, откъдето тя би могла. В противен случай, ще остави и нея, и селото на мира… Докачил се големецът на чест, и – речено-сторено. Събрала момата мъжете, наклали те огън пред къщата й, и пръснали жаравата. Нуна минала през огъня, турчинът – не. Опитал той, при това – с коня си, който, изплашен, го хвърлил на земята. Все пак, удържал на думата си, и оставил и Нуна, и селото на мира…. До ден-днешен тази легенда се разказва в с.Българи. Където се знае, че внучката на Нуна ,нестинарката от легендата, се казва Злата. Жителите и нея споменават често. Наричат я Баба Злата. Но не заради възрастта й, а като знак на най-голяма почит и уважение. Защото смятат, че това е последната, голяма, безспорна, истинска нестинарка, произлязла от това село….Баба Злата е играла за последен път в огъня през 1964г.. И това, че хората не забравят тази година, изтъквайки я едва ли не като исторически факт с огромно значение, е смайващо. Но също е факт. Защото, напук на превратностите на времето, традицията нестинарство не умира. Независимо дали ни родее с обичая, наричан по света игра по огън…Има го в Китай, някъде в Африка, в Океания, по-малко из Европа…Има го и в с.Българи. Единственото в България място, където наследената, вероятно от траките обредност, не угасва.