Pupa Russa, Ludus et jocus

Gheorghe Crăciun | September 01, 2008
Translated by: Florin Bican

 

Pupa Russa, Ludus et jocus
The People’s Republic of Romania is a country where you first learned to write at a high wooden desk, covered with scrawls. Year after year, just before school let out, the comrade teacher would ask you to bring fragments of broken glass and sheets of sandpaper, rags and buckets of lye water from home. Every trace of pencil, ink or penknife, all the scrawls, words and notches would miraculously vanish. You’d scrub the desks to perfection, cut your fingers, wind up with numb hands and blisters, scream, giggle—eyes aglow with concern, you’d be working with adult gravity, you’d swing the windows wide, and the ancient dust-like wooden scrapings would slowly drift into nothingness. You can still remember the fragrance of beech wood scraped with the edge of a broken-glass shard, rubbed with strips of abrasive cloth, with textures varying from rough to smooth, till your palms got swollen with all the rubbing and scrubbing. You’d get tired and step back to admire your work. You can neither forget the brightness nor the whiteness of the wooden desktop, nor the smoothness, nor the freshness, nor anything. Your swollen palms upon the polished wood. Some other sensations having to do with noises, rustling sounds, clicks, clapping hands, voices, interjections… Your desk an unwelcoming space like a cage and a tank turret you’d climb into panting after all the running at recess, you’d perch there quietly, way up. Not until third grade did you manage to rest your feet on the floor. You’d be listening to the teacher’s tobacco-chipped voice, and the air would come alive with the old unbearable reek of diesel-scrubbed floors mud sawdust rubber boots jam sandwiches ink dirty boots and Chinese tennis shoes. Sometimes in winter you’d fall asleep next to the hot tile stove.
You hadn’t started going to school, you were barely six, if that old, and you didn’t yet know all your ABCs. You’d be trying to identify the letters in the large-print titles in the papers. You could put your finger on the letter A in the wordREPUBLICA and on the letter O in the word POPULARĂ. Reading backwards you could find MOR, which means “die” in the name of the country ROMÂNIA, but so far you were unable to spell the words normally, from beginning to end, because at this point you couldn’t actually read.
 
Nay, no way you could say in one breath acilbuper ăralupop ănâmor, the way you did in fourth grade when you had already joined the pioneers and reckoned you were something special with all those words you could speak backward and – so you thought – only you could understand. Occasionally you could rap out whole sentences at incredible speed. You’d ask, for instance, ec iam icaf? (how you doin’?) or ednu et icud? (where are you going?) and started laughing for no obvious reason. You didn’t find it hard to use that language. You could have easily spoken it for the rest of your life, using nothing but words turned backwards. Minodora Elena, the girl sharing your desk, was absolutely thrilled to reply with brief covert sentences of her own enib (I’m doin’ fine) orăs ăm coj (I’m going to play). You hadn’t started going to school yet, but you already knew how to draw, taking great pains over each letter, the following sentence:
 
 
 
“Guess what’s written here?” you’d immediately hasten to ask Mom and Dad and Grandma and Grandpa and Ileana and Tuţi and Gigela and nenea Willi and nenea Mihai and Aneta the dumb and Sanda veranda and Ana banana and Georgie porgie and Nicky the sticky and Tony baloney and Davey the gravy and all the people you’d meet in the street at the bistro buying cigarettes for your neighbour Briotă at kindergarten at the grocer’s at the playground in the woods to get some goods in Muşat’s own garden where thieves get no pardon.
So what was your thieving all about, then? strawberries radishes mirabelles dates carob beans fried frog side dullberries? Or was it hickory dickory dock a mouse ran up the clock? No, your thieving was about unripe apples, green mulberries, sour grapes, plums setting your teeth on edge, kittens, sparrows’ nests, sludge to paint yourselves black like Gypsies, fire straw, kindling, glass shards, empty tins to feed the dolls, cardboard sheets, papers, corks, medicine bottles, pieces of cloth, sheep droppings, tips of scythe blades, discarded shoes to make boats or sleighs for your rag dolls, rusty nails, screws, bicycle tubes, wires, ends of string, round flattened tin caps, which counted for money.
So what did you do there, in Muşat’s house and garden and deserted barn? One of them would get a piece of paper and a burnt matchstick and ask: “Who can read?” Then they would make the following drawing (even sketchier and more difficult to make out than what’s to be seen below):
…………………………………………………………………………………..
and they’d say “Now read.” and you’d reply “But I can’t read” and they’d say “Okay, then, just read after me ŞUNCĂ (HAM) CAT (STOREY) LAMPĂ (LAMP) PAT (BED) – “I ADMIT I’VE EATEN SHIT” and you’d read after them, and in the end they were all in stitches, rolling with laughter, splitting their sides, laughing themselves silly, collapsing with mirth. YOU’VE BEEN EATING SHI-IT! YOU’VE BEEN EATING SHI-IT! they’d all chant in a chorus – Andrei and Davey Georgie and Manea, Tuţi and Sanda, Mioara and Gigela Ana and Aneta. Particularly Ana and Aneta whom no one could beat at speaking pig Latin…
So what were you selling and buying out there? Food, pistols, beans, quilts, books and note books, boxes and pots, pasta, olives, carrots, castles, transistor radios, countries and continents, windcheaters, bananas, candles, documents from the town hall, jersey suits, land, threshing machines, prams, blouses, kerchiefs, machineguns and tanks, gabardine garments, steel horseshoes, tractors and wagons, acres and hectares, horse balm and rat poison, hatch traps, Bazna pigs, maize and wagon canopies, latches and curling irons, all the words you knew from home and added to every day, which you used daily in your games just to show off.
You’d get the odd kid ready to sell the Morse code, but that would only happen after you’d become familiar with the other letter code, the alphabet. One of you would bring a booklet less than the palm of your hands in size, would let you feel its black plastic covers and then asked you “D’you know what this is?”, and you’d all say “A booklet.” “Nah, that’s a pocket book,” someone would retort. And someone else, Aneta or Georgie, Davey or Ileana would say “A pocket booklet, you mean”. “Okay then, a pocket booklet. Let’s open it. That would be five bani each. Well, what can you see here?” Next you’d take up learning dots and dashes and talking by means of dots and dashes tapping on walls, on barn planks, on tree trunks, on window panes, on the school- toilet doors and everything that could yield short and long sound elements, pencils and brushes during art class, inkpots, schoolbags, on the church railings, on the blown up pig’s bladders you’d walk the streets with in winter, on the top of the swill cauldron and the wooden partitions of the chicken coop, on nenea Willi’s iron gate and on the coffin lid when nenea Willi’s boy died. For you, nothing was sacred. Your mind was merging into the Morse code, and a morse was an animal living in a freezing ocean far away from the country named Greece where people were writing exclusively in the Greek alphabet. Because in the plastic-cover pocketbook, which within months had completely changed your lives, you had also discovered the alphabet in question with Γ,Δ,Λ,Ξ,Π,Σ,Φ and other such letters (some of them not unlike the capitals in Romanian with which you had long been familiar). You were quick to master it and started gleefully drawing the signs which were entirely yours all over the place, particularly on fences and house walls for people to see them and marvel. It was your secret, yours alone. And how proud you were of them – odalisque in a harem…
 
The icicles keep dripping outside your window, a titmouse has been showing up on your window sill for a few days now, where you scatter the breadcrumbs every morning. It’s a green titmouse, or yellow, or grey, or tawny, or a mixture of all those colours, it’s the beginning (according to the calendar under the glass plate on the bedside-table where Agnes keeps her stockings, pencils, jam jars, note books, cotton wool bag and sewing kit) of the Rosina-Mathilde-Klemens-Hilarius-Gertrud-Eduar week bound to end in a light wet imponderable flurry of snow, just to make room for the saints Josef-Irmgard-Alexandra-Lea-Toribio-Katharina, all of them descending into the middle of the city, bang in the old medieval fortress, wreathed in rain and mist and peradventure disclosing their dour faces on a day of niggardly light filtered through the branch-maize of the chestnut trees next to the Tower.
It’s spring, after all. Monday afternoon and the window is open. You’re running a fever, you’re sick, you’re to stay home for three days, doctor’s orders, you’re on your own while your room mates are imprisoned in the study room, dorm, seven iron beds: Anne Maria Schmidt, Nicoleta Deleanu, Emilia Sabău, Isabella Teutsch, Agnes Popazu, Crina Minea and you, Leontina Guran. Now you’ve become a sort of rat of solitude, you’re listening to the walls’ liquefied silence, their water-like silence, the thick and transparent green blue liquid of the air wherein the chairs, the bedside tables, the clothes hanging over the chairs, your hot hands refrain from saying anything. You curl up in bed, shivering under blankets redolent of dust and a cacophony of perfumes. The day flickers out and flows into your hearing as if its purpose were to get bogged down in a dark funnel – your ear. The voices of children playing under the chestnuts and the booming sound of carpets being beaten in the courtyards around, bicycle bells, a dog howling in the distance, a white-grey-breasted sparrow frozen for an instant within the window frame. The world is now given birth to inside your head, lingers there for a moment like a sweet conglomerate of nameless noises. You could make the efforts to differentiate between them, to pluck yourself out of the dazing heat of the fever and discover the banality of this solitude, yet that would only cause the world in your head to annihilate any trace of savour it might hold. What’s happening to you now in this body ravished by high temperature – there goes even the o so manly profile of professor Horaţiu Mălinaş leafing through an anatomy atlas with coloured plates – something going together well with the word “voluptuousness,” the wordvoluptas you know from Latin classes, a word in which you sensed from the very beginning a sort of threat, a sort of fierceness of pleasure entirely alien to your defencelessness, a word you were quick to associate with the desire for loss, with a desire to merge with the world around and renouncing your own self.
That’s how everything starts, with renunciation. To get rid of your boyish rigidity, the rigidity of a girl good at team sports, a girl on whom high hopes have been placed, to forget this constant inclination of yours to split the hairs of the words uttered by the people around you into an endless number of nuances, to tuck your dress hurriedly around your thighs so as not to be lifted too high by the wind, to bite your lips so as not to tell Didi Zăgreanu, a pain in the neck and pompous at that, and high-voiced, on top of it, what you really think about him. Renunciation and return to the foothills, to the fire on which bacon was roasted, to the stable where the warm steam of cow pates enveloped you like a shirt soaked in oil, to the summer kitchen swarming with flies, forehead buried into Grandma Profira’s shiny hapron. To return there to the garden of your house, where impudent Valer, your cousin, suddenly pulls your knickers down and watches as if in a dream the dark fold of your sex, the sex of a little girl without breasts, to experience once again the prickling stubble in the soles of your feet, the sticky hot feel of the bread broken into pieces as soon as it was taken out of the oven, Grandfather Marcu’s blood-splattered boots in December, after slaughtering the pig, cast like a bunch of dead rats next to the entrance steps, the persistent odour of rancid pork fat that had saturated the attic beams, the dust in your pockets at the end of summer when the cherry-tree foliage fades to yellow for lack of any further use.
Here nonetheless is the air wherein the frizzy sheep and flour odour of student Teuch, Isabela still lingers on together with the fragrance of stale water in a glass with three sprigs of basil which Emilia gives off wherever she goes, dark-haired and massive and sententious Emilia Sabău, an Orthodox priest’s daughter. Here’s nothing but the fragrance of a juicy tart apple, half-eaten and forgotten by Nicoleta on the corner of her bedside table – the greenish-green apple dotted with pore-like specks resembling a child’s complexion – and your room mate who’s sneaked away into town to end up in a nauseating cinema hall, all gone limp as Feri’s ample hand feverishly curls around her fingers simultaneously trying to rub against her knees, as his palm engages in a frenzied search for her thighs, her legs sheathed in Triumph tights, flimsy and gray as a spider web, the tights she’s got as a present from Anne Maria, the German ethnic from Saschiz, tiny and freckled, lymphatic Anne with her famished-mouse teeth and her stiff, much too shiny hair reminiscent of a plastic doll, the oh so insignificant and minute being going by the name of Anne, for whom the right size of dessous doesn’t seem to exist at all.
You’re clenching your teeth because your mind once again conjures up Horaţiu Mălinaş’s profile rising from among the anatomy plates, his lips moving mechanically while his eyelids hardly blink, and at the same time you experience a sweet swoon-like feeling descending from the top of your head through your medullar recesses and coming to a velvety stop in the sensitive folds of your sphincter. Return, relapse, launch into a time akin to a sort of aquarium, a childhood despised, loathed, your village in the foothills, a world straight from life’s ancient dereliction. You’ve managed to run away, you’ve had the extraordinary chance of running away, you’re now a student two years away from graduating from high school in a genuine town, you’ve swore to yourself you’ve run away for good, and it’s enough for you now to hear the rhythmical wave of the children screaming outside, the faint cock-a-doodle-doo of a cock on one of the hills surrounding the walled-in city, car claxons, footfalls, the flapping wings of the doves perched on the eaves of the Lutheran church next to your dorm with walls going all the way back to the middle ages – it’s enough for you to hear all that for everything to tumble into a darkness of which you’re not afraid.
The rustling noises of the city pervade every nook and cranny, enmeshed in an uncanny feeling of joy, take possession of the ashen air you indwell, and within that air objects appear to have entered unawares an infinitesimal albeit continuous exchange of material substance, the blanket appears to renounce its tattered edges, and the said edges seem to ooze into the molasses of the mattress, the white bed sheets appear to have reached an exchange of atoms with the walls’ lime-like plush. You have discovered this Monday-afternoon solitude, and your fever-ridden flesh feels strong now. The icicles outside your window hang frozen in their opaque transparency. The sick bay is full, the girls sneeze, cough their hearts out, there’s no vacant bed left, the doctor ordered you to stay for three days in your dorm, drink tea, take aspirins and have lots of honey and lemons. Consequently, your toes are groping around on the floor in search of your slippers, you walk down the isle between beds, you take the hot plate out of the cupboard, plug it in, retrieve the kettle from the bedside table, its bottom a-glimmer with the remains of a golden liquid pulsating underneath a bright oxide skin, you open the door and walk out into the corridor enveloped in a scratched celluloid light.

 

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