Men in Winter, The Boars Were Mild

Ştefan Bănulescu | August 18, 2008
Translated by: Jean Harris

 

Condrat stands, props the oar against the thick trunks of the oaks and pushes the boat through the wood. Bits of ice slam against the ribs of the boat—bits of ice mixed with broken boughs, clots of floating vegetation, old leaves, cormorant and heron feathers. The storm trails eddies of water among the trees and undergrowth. The water isn’t too deep, but under the bark of the older trees it has climbed nearly to their crowns—and over the noise of the storm and the bits of ice dryly thumped by the oaks comes the whirring of the water beneath the rind of the boles. The beating of the storm and the passage of the boat unveil last year’s dry grasses under the water.
Condrat’s relaxed movements barely show all the weight he uses to push the boat and keep it balanced through the wood. He keeps his washed-out blue eyes riveted somewhere ahead.
— Did you see something, Condrat?—shouts the pot-bellied fat man from the other corner of the boat, roaring the words to be heard through the noise of the storm and branches.
Condrat doesn’t answer, he keeps rowing. Without looking at the other man, he rows around an old, dry oak, collapsed in the water with its torn out roots gaping. The North East wind flattens the water like a roller, pushes the thick, long veins of the roots over the felled trunk—making them meet and mix with the top branches of the crown.
— Good it broke, the old wobbler! Look how it kisses its roots!—searching with his toothless mouth in the beating of the wind, the man with the paunch roars again from the other end of the boat. He looks for the best place so his roared words will fly straight toward Condrat. Good that it busted, that old oak!
Condrat doesn’t listen to the fat man, or he doesn’t hear him. He pushes the boat further on with the oar.
Resting himself, the man with the paunch keeps quiet for a time. He breaths with difficulty, and he wipes the sweat mixed with rain and mud from his narrow forehead and round, red cheeks with the sleeve of his big, double-faced fur coat. He has a wooden leg on the right side, and he grabs it with his hands and sits it on the edge of the bark so that the storm-beaten fishing boat will balance better. Then he draws air deeply into his chest and begins again to roar:
` — It’s been dry for thirty years now. And still straight as a candle. People wouldn’t cut it. They avoided it. They used to say: it’s not dry, it’s alive—devil take them for idiots—they must have thought it had gathered so much power or sap in itself that it could live without leaves. When it came down—by your leave—it was as rotten as a stinking tannin bush. Pooh!
The pot-bellied man spits, and the spittle flies back in his face.
Repeatedly moving the oar from one side of the boat to the other, Condrat looks to get out of the currents of water flowing around the fallen oak, exposed as it is in a wide clearing to the full beating of the storm. There’s not a tree to be seen near it for about a hundred meters.
— Take a look-see, Condrat, how this old geezer sucked up the loam. Remember when there was earth around here? Old man oak soaked up everything around: not even grass grew near it anymore. And people used to say: this tree is the most beautiful and the stoutest. It’s the pride of our forest. They were cutting the young trees, but they wouldn’t touch this one. Look at it now. How empty it is. You can look through the trunk as if it were a spy-glass, to better see the end.
Condrat manages to get the boat out of the currents. Gathering strength, he pushes it ahead toward a thicket of tall trees.
— Condrat, maybe I should stop talking. I can’t take stock of things with words anymore. Day and night follow each other, and we pass through them as through memories. Where there’s still earth, you can’t cross. This winter, the polar birds didn’t return to our Delta. They used to come for their long vacation. Now, they’ve nowhere to fly between the pole and here. The sky’s been occupied. Cannon balls have a long range. It’s almost the beginning of March—and you’ll see, the cranes won’t come from the South again this spring. How many birds will be able to cross over Greece and Italy? Rommel’s still in Africa. We’ll be left with only sparrows, dear boy.
The man with the belly rests a bit more, draws air into his chest, adjusts his mouth in the beating wind and yells again:
— I’m yearning to speak, Condrat. I was somebody—Condrat, an elevated spirit. I lost myself among you here. As long as I lived—the way I lived—I didn’t have anyone in this village to talk with. Isolated as I was, I started talking at night in dreams. I’d go to bed. I’d fall deeply asleep, and around the middle of the night I’d be dreaming out loud. It seems I was speaking beautifully. For a while my wife got into the habit of waking up at night. She’d get out of bed, get her needlework and sit in a chair. She’d lean against the stove and listen to me. One morning she said: “Last night, you spoke more beautifully than on the other nights. You told of a white bird that was standing on one leg in the Delta among the reeds and drinking milk from the stars. She drank milk from the stars, took her fill and pulled her beak back to go to sleep. But the stars remained broken. And so much milk had flowed from the stars over the water below that the water went on thickening powerfully until it turned into stony earth made of milk. Then, husband, you said to me: ‘That’s it, we’re moving. We’re getting out of this miserable village. Get ready, we’re moving. Put out your hand so we can take the house. Grab it well by the eves. They’re a bit rotten. Be careful the house doesn’t break. Take your knitting needles too, your handwork, the stool and the stove—we’re going to the shoal of solid milk. Water won’t drown us there every year. The saints are wet. Put out your hand so we can pick up the church and take it as well. We’ll set it to dry there on the shoal of petrified milk.’” And how many marvels didn’t I speak? But in the morning, when I was supposed to enjoy them too, I didn’t know them anymore. I used to listen on the sly to how my wife would tell the neighbors. She was stealing me, Condrat, and, what’s worse, it seems to me that she wasn’t stealing me the right way. My wife doesn’t have a very agile mind. And I started to realize that she wasn’t stealing everything I had said at night—and many things got lost without anyone’s knowing how whole and beautiful they were. And then it would get to be day again, and I wouldn’t have anyone to talk with. You were all caught with the cares of the day, with kids and cattle, with the water that drowned you and keeps drowning you, and you have nowhere to run because there’s no one to care for you. You never took me seriously as you should have. On top of that, some of them laughed at me, Vlase, for instance. I didn’t have anybody to talk with. That’s it. With Miss Maria—pff—she’s a mute virgin, more midwife and healer than teacher. No one in this abandoned village would have written down births and deaths if it weren’t for her. She stands in place of a town hall. Let me speak, Condrat.
Condrat rows absently. He sees to his work.
— Listen to me now, who knows after this…Do you think I didn’t want to stand in for the town hall, or at least in place of a healer? But sclerosis struck me. You only see that I lost my leg, but it touched the veins in my hands as well: I can’t even grab the quill to note the hour, day, month, year. The waters and your abominable winters made me sick—those winters that made the poet Ovid cry out loud, poet of delicate loves as he was.
The man with the paunch has gotten hoarse. He can’t holler anymore, nor can he find the best place in the wind for howling words toward Condrat. The wind gets mixed-up, tangled in itself, wound up with rain. The fat man’s words scatter, mix their syllables among themselves, come undone and fly every which way. The fat man strains to hear them. To him they seem great things, all mixed up with the syllables differently matched and inside out—and he tries to catch and memorize them, in the hope he’ll survive and recount them as rare memories. Only now he can’t catch those inside out words. They’re stolen from him too, and in the respite he only hears—between short, repeated blasts of wind—the croaking of the ravens, the cracking of the boughs and the glassy sound of ice bits in the water. His mouth feels empty and dry, and he runs his tongue over his thick lips, wet with rain. His tongue touches something cold and puffy in the corner of his mouth. He lifts his little, sunken eyes—toward heaven—and says, quietly this time, keeping his lips pressed together, so that his words won’t run away from him and to feel them better:
— Snow flakes. Winter is back. It’ll snow down a blizzard again.
Condrat drives the boat further among a thicket. Here oaks grow one against the other. Their trunks touch, the wind beaten boughs run into each other, scratching each other, their saps flow thick and green mixing with ice, with rain and flakes of snow that are coming down harder, and with the mud that forms a crust above the waves.
Then all of a sudden the boat runs into an endless water, without a single tree. The forest has ended suddenly. The water of the Delta stretches everywhere, turbid and empty. The islands of dry reed can’t cheat the eye—ashen, dark, scattered over the water from place: there’s no earth where they are. They float, dragged by eddies.
— Turn the boat around!—the man with the paunch bawls with all his might. Back, Condrat! That’s all there is. There’s no earth. There’s no point in going farther. Turn around, may the devil take us all! There’s no land in the wood—there isn’t anywhere! It’s drowned everywhere, in the village, in the woods, in the reeds. Back! We have nowhere to bury your child! There’s no earth for the grave. There’s not even earth left for a grave. Back to the village! Maybe we’ll find a house on a high place, an earthen floor that hasn’t been flooded at someone’s place. We’ll come to an agreement and bury him there.
Condrat stays with the oar hanging in the water. He blinks often. Drops of rain and sweat knot under his unshaved beard. The fine, dense rain smothers the air. White stains and thorns of snow flow down through the rain, bestirring. The blizzard comes down.
Condrat wants to sit, to roll himself up in a ball. He’s cold. He shivers. He looks toward the bottom of the boat and his eyes gape wide. He sees water passing over the beam. The child’s coffin floats in the water in the boat. Rain and snow fall like a resounding mist on the coffin lid.
Condrat straightens up all of a sudden, grasps the oar with both hands, turns the boat violently toward the wood, pushing it with fury, straining himself, gritting his hollow, prickly jaws, hitting the water right and left with the oar. He clutches at the boughs with his hands to get the boat moving. Passing rapidly over cattails and torn branches, the bark sounds stifled through the icy water.
— To the dunes, Condrat!—howls the fat man. Not toward the village, toward the dunes! Drive toward the sand dunes behind the village. The dunes are high. The water hasn’t touched their peaks so far. Let’s try there first. We’ll bury him in the dunes. We’ll weave him a bed of branches so he won’t sink in the sand. What do you say, woman?—the fat man howls with his last strength toward the back of the boat where a woman doubles over near the coffin.
Bent over and cringing in the back of the boat, the woman has crouched and huddled so under the rain, she can hardly be seen—from outside the boat, she probably couldn’t be seen at all. She has seemed to sleep. Her down-turned face buried in thick hempen stuff that covers the coffin, she has shoved her hands under the fabric—to protect them and keep them warm. And all this time, her head scarf has been drinking up water. And now it shines with water gathered in the folds, as in small troughs with white margins of snow.
The top of Condrat’s oar stations quickly between one tree and another. With long crashes, the boat cuts the misty ice in the water and the tangled branches; it rotates among the trees with rapid zigzags.
The woman remains coiled with her face buried in the thick hemp, hands under the cloth. Condrat’s shoulders and head can no longer be seen from among the trees, and tired of following the bark’s flight and Condrat’s wild movements, the fat man falls asleep with his nose shoved in the collar of his double-faced fur coat and begins to snore and talk in his sleep between snores with a strong, shouting voice.
The woman twists on the bottom of the boat. She bobs her head toward the man with the paunch. His question sticks in her mind: “What do you say, woman?” Without knowing he’s talking in his sleep or what he says, she hears him go on talking. She doesn’t catch what he’s saying, but “What do you say, woman?” goes on sounding in her ears. As if laying her cheek in a new way, she jerks her head without raising it too much from the fabric covered lid, and the small troughs of water in the folds of her kerchief empty, melting the borders of snow. She feels the cold water trickling onto her neck, her breast, her back. She crouches even more against the cold, but she’s glad of the ice-cold water. Having penetrated to her skin, it wakes her, and lets her know she’s alive. She wants to rest her head back where it has lain till now, but the fat man’s words from a moment before persist in her mind: “What do you say, woman?”—and she’s glad again. She even laughs quietly. She really thinks she’s being taken seriously, her opinion looked for, so she starts to answer, unleashing words without end:
— I, what can I say, father Ichim, now that you ask me? What can I say? Because I said it in every possible way, he’s my child and Condrat’s. We have to bury him somewhere. We have to, of course.
No one hears her words. In fact, she doesn’t even speak with the idea that anyone can hear her. She can’t even hear herself clearly, and she doesn’t trouble to connect her words. Deacon Ichim sleeps deeply and talks agitatedly in his sleep. In the other corner of the boat, bent one with the oar, Condrat hurls the boat ahead among the trees. The woman goes on talking—like that, for her own pleasure. She feels how the words resonate in her chest, how they grow round, warm on her lips—and she squeezes into herself even more and better, and there in her rough, worn-out clothes she find her body, gaunt and small, and she lets out a low bit of a laugh, as at a beautiful wonder. The icy water runs sounding along the length of the boat. Gluing her cheek tightly to the hempen fabric and huddling down in her clothes, the woman speaks yet louder.
— As I was saying, father Ichim, what can I say? I said it in all kinds of ways. How could I not say it since it’s my child? Where you say, father, and where Condrat says, that’s where we’ll bury him. How else?—but where, if we don’t find earth? The courtyard at my brother-in-law Vlase’s place is pretty high up. It’s not all drowned. It would be possible at his place. Not to mention his house—the water hasn’t even reached the lip of the porch, same as it hasn’t reached the school. Vlase’s house is holding up well. He hasn’t repaired it for three-four years, not with a single nail. Good craftsmen, from Sulina. A Tatar from Cîşla carved the pillars. But Vlase can’t do it, so he told me: “I can’t sister-in-law Fenia.” He has fodder for the cattle in his yard. Should he set fire to the fodder? “Believe me, sister-in-law Fenia—look, I’ll help you with a buck or two. I’m not a pagan. I have children as well.” He has two, pretty big, but you know them. “I’m not a pagan. I’d even take him with the boat to Tulcea for you, sixty kilometers, if you want to bury him there, like human beings, in a cemetery. Only I can’t take him. The Danube hasn’t lost its ice—winter stays late—it hasn’t melted the way it has on the lakes here, and it’s not possible. The thaw will catch us on the way. You know that the Danube has not one arm but three, and they’ll all dash at us with ice floes. But there’s need of fodder, sister-in-law. How can we destroy the cattle after—don’t you see?—they’re wandering in water up to their knees? Look at them, sister-in-law Fenia. Don’t even think of saying something against it: the white-browed cow has fallen ill. She was good for milk. We were keeping her to breed. She’s from Chilia-Veche. What do you hear of your brother, Vangu, since it seems he’s a fisherman at Chilia?” “What’s to know, brother-in-law Vlase?—well enough—I haven’t heard a thing about him.” “That’s how people are, sister-in-law. You get lost, one from the other. If you want fodder, I might give you some from what I have myself. There’s not much, and until the water withdraws, who knows? But you, sister-in-law Fenia, you don’t need fodder, because you don’t raise cattle. Good for you. Better with nothing when you have everything to lose. I keep them here in the yard. What can I do? I have six. Six! Spovidău the Mouth—that lake thief, has his eye on them—ever since last winter. He tied horse bones to the bottom of his moccasins and came over the ice, on the Danube—right from where he hangs out in the forest of Leta—to see what else he can steal from around here. If he hadn’t gotten mixed up with Căpuci’s toothy daughter on Twelfth Night—because the thing of it is, he made love to her on the stove all winter—he would have stolen my cows even back then. People say that even Andrei the Dead, father of thieves, has turned up. It was for nothing that people said that Andrei had died again, a fifth time and for good. No way! Someone saw him yesterday, in the woods near our dunes. He was mending his shirt in a tree. He won’t calm down even now when everything’s drowned. This cursed water has raised him from the dead so that he can plunder us too. He lays in wait for us in the forest with the ravens. Do you think, sister-in law Fenia, that this little filly Vica, being the daughter of Andrei the Dead, dissolute as she is and battened on our village—don’t you think she’s in touch with Andrei the thief, her dad? Fenia, protect Condrat from Vica. She’s only turned the heads of good people with her wicked love: Petre the Liter, Stavre the little hitter, Chizlinski, Luca Horobeţ, settled people with houses full of kids. She has a taste for gentle people, that serpent, all the better to writhe, her with her appetites. If you think Condrat took her in his fishing gang last fall to the fish cover among the reeds, think again. Protect him, Fenia. All you have is troubles anyhow, and then what does Vica say?—I’ll get a better grip on Condrat, now that he has to leave for the front.
Fenia, with her head laid on the rough fabric, bursts into a kind of lamentation. And from that dry weeping, unmodulated, she starts singing Vica’s song in the same dry way. She told it now as a lament and curse. She was weeping for her dead child, but she sang the words of Vica’s song with hatred.
 
Vica, daughter of brezoi
Who are your people, from what soil?
Born in a fishing boat, a sea purse,
More than your mother, the Danube was your nurse,
River bed she gave you—and milk, white
From the moon, breast of night
 
Fenia moves her head right and left above the linen cloth, to wipe her eyes and nose—and then she takes up the unraveled line of her words again—about her meeting with her brother-in-law, Vlase:
— Hey, what can I tell you, sister-in-law, Fenia? Look out for Condrat. That’s it. This Vica pops up like her ol’ man, Andrei: places you’d never think of. After Spovidău the Mouth plowed her for the first, the crazy woman ran through the water for four days till she got to Bogdaproste marsh. Long as she stayed there hidden in the reeds—it should be about a year—even the dress on her had rotted. She was walking around with her waist and chest wrapped up in reed leaves like gypsy women who make rain, and she fed herself by catching fish under water with her muzzle like the otters. And from Bogdaproste, where do you think Vica showed up? La Babadag! Big city, with railroad and a large mosque. And how do you think Vica showed up in Babadag? In flowered calico, red and yellow to the heels, and with blue combs in her hair. On her feet—how could you think she’d be going around barefoot!—she was walking around in white velvet sandals with round buckles. And whose head do you think she turned in Babadag?—Hogea’s—Hogea, the priest of the Tatars and Turks. She took him out of the mosque. Hogea, a young man, 78 years, clean as the walls at Easter. The people from Babadag—refined city people—pretended not to see or hear—out of shame for Hogea. And after that Vica came here again to the village. As I was telling you, sister-in-law Fenia, it’s a shame to bury your child in people’s courtyard and let the cattle run over him like that. I have a boat with two oars, if only the Danube wasn’t frozen—and even if it melted it would take quite a while until the ice floes to die down—I would have taken him to Tulcea for you, sister-in-law. “How could I leave my boy at Tulcea among strangers, Father Ichim? As for Carpena, Father, what can I say, I have nothing to complain about. An obliging woman. She jumps to help. She took my part: “Vlase let her bring the child and bury him in our courtyard since it’s high and paved.” “It can’t be done, Carpena. You shove the width of a spade in the ground of this courtyard and you come up with water. It’s water down below till you get to the axle of the earth.” That’s how brother-in-law Vlase is: he speaks beautifully. You just stay there to listen to him. And then brother-in-law Vlase took a spade and thrust it in near a haystack. And he began to dig. He dug and he dug: he was digging and swearing until the water began to bubble and to throw up drops—a clear water, the dearest thing. It did your heart good. When Carpena saw water in the grave, she lifted her skirts, bent her knees, stretched out on her belly, and she started drinking with appetite. “Good water, husband Vlase. Let’s drain it and make it a well. Let’s not dirty the place. It’s a shame for us to make a cemetery. Fenia, it was good it crossed your mind to come to us. You provided us with a fine well. May it be a memorial to the child. Come on, Vlase. Let’s go in the house and cross ourselves before the icon because this is a holy sign.” And they both went into the house, and I left with my boat down the lane to look for a grave at someone else’s place. It doesn’t matter what this one or that one says about Carpena. I have nothing bad to say about her. Not that she’s my sister. She doesn’t run after fashion. She always goes around in a single dress. I know that she has two more good dresses, beyond the one she wears, but she never puts them on to show off. She filled the good dresses with grass, good grass, mowed a year ago at Periprava. And the flowered silk pillows from her trunk, she filled them with grass too, sewed up their mouths and mounted them on top of the cupboard in the attic. That’s what Carpena did, and she did well! Will there be grass ever again in the world, or not? No one can say.
Slower and slower, quieter and quieter, Fenia went on telling her lame, unraveled stories till she spoke without words, only moving her lips. Then she stopped moving her lips. She felt them fastened by frost. She remembered her palms in a weird way: she no longer knew where she’d left them, and she started searching by moving her chin from place to place over the hempen cloth—itself frozen to a crust. She felt something hard under the cloth, about the size of some hands. And the thing was, she felt disgusted rather than glad because now she would have to look after them, move them, bring them back to life and find them shelter, all when she was knocked out with tiredness and totally frozen. She felt that the coffin lid had stuck to her fingers. The ice under the cloth was slippery. The North Easter kept blowing—forever bringing water and snow. Her rough wool clothes hung heavy from damp. They cracked at the barest movement. They’d caught crusts of ice. But it wasn’t just her hands. She didn’t even know her body anymore. She was trying to look for it by running her bony shoulder against the inside of her rough wool coat—there where she thought the seams were thicker. It was her shoulder, or she was mistaken. It felt like a wet board to her. “Maybe I’m drowned.” She wanted to free her eyelids of the water and ice that flowed continuously now on her face and weighted her lashes. Through the fog of the rain and the whiteness of the snow, she saw Condrat and the deacon, long-shivering, somewhere between the woods and the sky. The boat wasn’t there anymore. Only the torrents could be seen wiping the contour of the trees, the branches, till nothing remained anymore, except a whitish spot without end and the crows flying dizzily. The wood would appear from time to time, the whole wood bursting out, spouted from under the water and snow. It lifted and fell, reversed, with the tops of the trees aimed down, splashing the torrents with mustache-like roots full of mud.
She saw Condrat floating through the water and snow in the air, beating with the oar among the braches which were flying, lost, through the North East wind, running away with branches at his temples and on his shoulder. He seemed to be rising, falling. She saw him, together with some roots and clouds, passing rapidly through the water that stretched without end, water attached to the sky by hooks of ice. From time to time, the Deacon appeared too under the woman’s staring eyes. She saw him huddled in his fur coat, sliding under water and snow. She heard his sleep talk bubbling under water. The deacon was perishing too; he couldn’t be seen any longer under the white of the snow. She heard only a heavier word of his here and there as it burst—cut, ripped with thin, sharp sounds by the glass-like bits of ice that jigged cheerfully in the water. And everything fell apart. All she could still see was herself in the bottom of the boat near the coffin, without Condrat, without the deacon. She called herself. Nothing could be seen anymore. There was nothing there anymore—and maybe that’s why her cry didn’t reach
her. There wasn’t even she any more. She had perished too, just like the wood, the clouds, the lanes, just like Condrat. Everywhere: white and silence. The white and quite were so thick, so full, so heavy, so frozen, that the North East wind could be heard, tolling, tormented somewhere outside the world…
— Give me the ax!
The words sounded faint, even now—still from somewhere outside the white and the silence—and Fenia recognized something of Condrat’s voice in the words. “It’s possible that they’re really some of his words, lost around here, years past.” Condrat rarely spoke with her, the same as with everyone: “who knows where he’d hidden these words of his, and now they’d come out of their hiding place, and wander without anyone and look for the time when the world was living. I wonder what it was when they were all living? Oh, yes, it was Vica.” And Condrat’s words came again from beyond the white:
— Fenia, give me the ax!
“Words cannot die. They torment themselves.” Fenia felt pity for Condrat’s words and wanted to save them from torment so they’d no longer wander where the world had been—and to bring them here, on this side, to her, to the dead. She stretched out the frozen slab of her hand to remove the thick snow that was separating her from the man’s words.
Only now, she scratches the ice with her nails. She searches a lot, tries several times to remove the thick wall of snow and ice. But she doesn’t succeed.
The words were running beyond; heard ever more faintly, they were moving away, wandering alone.
Fenia stretches her ear, to stick it better to the wall of snow, holds out her hand, but rolls and falls. All of a sudden, the wood of her palm comes upon a big, warm, sweaty hand inclined toward her. She hangs onto this hand, whose heat she suddenly recognizes, and she remembers, like that, all of a sudden, that it had stroked her, Fenia, when she was young. How many years would it be since then? Powerfully, she grabs this warm hand from long ago so it won’t escape her again. Something breaks the white, cracks it from the sky to the water in which the boat has sunk, and Fenia sees—through that cracked strip in the ice of the whole atmosphere—Condrat, bent over her, looking at her with his washed-out blue eyes:
— Get up, Fenia. Give me the ax.
Fenia tries to get up. She loses Condrat’s hand. She feels her hand fallen along her body. She feels around and comes upon the ax stretched along the length of the coffin on the bottom of the boat near the spade and shovel. She tries to raise the ax handle, no longer knows if she has lifted it or not. She finds her palm after a while—there under the cheek laid on the hemp thrown over the coffin lid, so she must have risen and sat in her place from before—and a deep sleep overtakes her.
Condrat knocks down several oak boughs with a lot of twigs and throws them in the boat, on the side opposite where the woman sits. He throws the ax back down and begins again to push the boat with the oar. The deacon has been sleeping peacefully and no longer talks in his sleep.
 
 

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