Short stories, Ego. Prose series, Polirom, 2015, 224 pages
Translation rights sold to: All rights available
A collection of short stories embodying urban sentiments, now ironic, now sad, sometimes grotesque, in which can be found young newlyweds and blasé couples, confused adolescents and nosy neighbours, homeless people and corporate drones, an ice sculptor, a girl whose hair is the colour of brandy when held up to the sunlight, a class of schoolchildren who have lost a rabbit’s eye, and a retired postman who wants to change his name.
The Rabbit’s Eye
That morning, Lara brought to school a rabbit’s head. She had wrapped it in a blue-striped kitchen towel, put it in a plastic bag from the Mega Image supermarket, and when she took it out, we all crowded round curiously.
“How white it is,” said Mona, wanting to touch its ears, but Lara wrapped it up again in the blood-stained towel.
“It’s dead, it’s dead!” shrieked Carolina, lurching back, and so I was able to go right up to Lara.
“What made you think of bringing it?” said a voice.
You couldn’t tell who was saying what in the commotion, everybody was shouting at once, every hand was tugging at the towel and trying to touch the rabbit’s head, somebody nipped me, I couldn’t make out who, and so I shoved George, who was behind me.
“Dad ran over it with the car,” yelled Lara above the din, “it escaped from the cage.”
“Poor rabbit,” said Mona softly, so softly that I could barely hear her.
“Do you keep rabbits?” somebody asked, but Lara didn’t answer.
“It’s got cloudy eyes,” I said.
I didn’t like looking at it.
“Well, what do you expect, it’s been dead since yesterday!”
They all wanted to touch the fur, but they avoided the cloudy eyes and the part with the black clotted blood around the neck. We were on the verge of getting into a real tussle, but then the geography teacher came in, a woman who you’d think had never laughed in her entire life and was proud of it.
“What’s all this?” she asked in her voice that was like a wrung lemon. “Sit down at your desks immediately.
Then she went up to Lara and pointed her finger at the towel from which poked a rabbit’s ear.
“A rabbit’s head,” said Lara, unwrapping the towel. “I brought it for biology class.”
There were a few moments of silence; it was so silent that I could hear the voice of the maths teacher from the next classroom. “The third order radical of sixty-four is...” after which he paused, as was his habit, waiting for his pupils to finish the sentence.
But I didn’t hear the rest of the sentence because the geography teacher began to shriek, as if all the bees in Uncle Nae’s hive had stung her. You couldn’t understand what she was saying and all of us were silent, and so with her fingertips she pushed the towel with the rabbit’s head back inside the bag. Then, she took a packet of wet wipes from her handbag and wiped her fingers for a long time. After that, she sent Lara home.
“You have gone way too far.”
She scrunched up the wet wipes and tossed them in the wastepaper basket.
“You have no business being in school until you come back with one of your parents.”
Lara came to a stop beside the teacher’s desk and from her face you could swear that her parents didn’t know anything about it. She shifted her weight from one leg to another and the bag swayed with a soft swishing sound. It looked like she wanted to say something, but she changed her mind, stuck her tongue out at the teacher, who was no longer looking at her, turned around swiftly and left.
The geography lesson was a fiasco, we all had our minds on the rabbit’s head, and the teacher gave us a spot test. In the break before the last lesson another scandal broke out, this time in the toilets on the ground floor, because a girl from the fourth form found one of the rabbit’s eyes in the sink. The news of the dead rabbit had gone all around the school by then and in every break, children from the other forms paraded through our classroom to find out the details, to make suppositions and then to crack sinister jokes. When that girl from the fourth form screamed that there was an eye in the sink, the children on the corridor crowded inside, and cohorts of children came down the stairs, envious that the eye hadn’t been found in the toilet on their floor. Amid the confusion, the eye flew from one hand to another, amid pushing and screeching, and finally it disappeared altogether.
After school, in the metro going home, we kept talking about the rabbit’s head and the eye that had turned up so bizarrely in the sink. But Mona fluttered her eyelashes and said something about the incommensurability of appearance and essence – words that I am sure she must have fished up from some site that teaches you intelligent expressions – beneath the hungry eyes of George and Doru from the eighth form, who weren’t even listening to what she was saying, instead they kept nudging her breasts as if by accident every time the metro jolted.
All three got off at the station before mine, as usual. I always feel sad after I part from them, maybe because Mona, my best friend, smiles a bit too often at Doru from the eighth form, even though she knows I fancy him. And I think about what would happen if he didn’t get off at the station and we remained together. I wouldn’t care about anybody or anything, neither the ladies in the metro who look me up and down with searching, curious eyes, nor the boy from the bagel shop on the corner, who always gives me burnt bagels and addresses me as “girlie”. He wouldn’t call Mona that, of that I’m sure. And I wouldn’t think any more about the cloudy eyes of the rabbit and the inexplicable appearance – and then disappearance – of one of them in the girls’ toilets.
That sadness didn’t leave me even when I got home, among the heaps of things and the whispered voices. Lately, since Mother’s operation, nobody has nagged me about homework, or marks. “A minor operation,” said my grandmother on my father’s side when she came to stay with us for a few weeks to help Mother with the housework, “all the people get their gall bladders removed by that method nowadays,” she said, “they make three little holes in you, pull it out with a laser, and that’s that.” But Mother was quite poorly and for the first time ever she didn’t look after me when I had the ’flu, Father said that she has to be careful, she isn’t allowed to sneeze or cough, because it will burst the stitches. I pictured stitches of coloured thread, like the ones in Grandma’s tapestries, and I was disappointed when Mother showed me them after that, after I recovered from the ’flu: they were transparent and very small.
“A minor operation,” said Grandma, but then I heard them whispering about the results of the biopsy, which still hadn’t arrived. I had known what a biopsy was since Carolina’s mother had one done two years previously and died less than a year after that. “Don’t worry about your Mother,” Grandma told me, “it’s completely different with her, I’m sure the doctor had her take those tests just so he could inflate the bill, that’s what they always do.”
I went out of the metro station and dragged my feet down the lane between the housing blocks, I stopped at the bagel shop and bought myself one with sesame seeds, just to spite the boy who was getting ready to give me one with poppy seeds – burnt, as usual – and I tried unsuccessfully to avoid Mrs Mia, our neighbour from the ground floor, the retired P.E. teacher.
“Why are you slouching along like that, dear?”
I straightened my back, but it was too late: Mrs Mia was already counting on her fingers all the illnesses I was going to get because of my poor posture. I tried not to look at her Mega Image plastic bag, which was rustling slightly and reminded me of the rabbit’s head and the eye that disappeared without trace. I managed to get away from her and climbed in the lift. I hoped that there wouldn’t be anybody else at home – now that Mother has gone back to work and Grandma has left – so that I could log on to Facebook and see whether Doru had liked my photo from yesterday. It bugs me that I don’t have Internet on my ’phone; Mona does, obviously, and so do half the pupils in my class.
But no luck, I wasn’t home alone. Mother was sitting on the sofa in the living room, twiddling her mobile, and Father was leaning against the radiator and smoking a cigarette with a frown on his face. It looked like they were in the middle of an argument. I didn’t say anything and went to my room. And then the whispers began.
“How the hell could they lose something like that?” asked Father.
Mother shushed him and I didn’t hear what they said next.
I wondered what Mother could have lost to annoy Father so much. And I thought of Mona’s parents, who got divorced two years ago. Mona cried for days. Now her Father only sees her at weekends and on holidays, but they go to really amazing places. The last time, they went to London and Mona bought a suitcase full of clothes.
I turned on the laptop and saw that Doru hadn’t liked my photo, but instead he had posted a song on Mona’s wall: Rihanna, We Found Love. I flung myself on the bed, I wanted to go to sleep and never wake up again. But it wasn’t easy to fall asleep, what with the woman on the floor below barking down the ’phone like the person at the other end was deaf and what with the woman next door’s cat mewling angrily. Later, when the noise died down, I heard Mother talking in a whisper:
“What are we supposed to do now?”
“Nothing, you can’t come up with another gall bladder if those bastards have lost yours. Amateurs, that’s what they are, amateurs.”
There was a pause, and then Father’s voice took on an unexpectedly comforting tone:
“But you feel better now, don’t you?”
Mother probably nodded, because Father went on:
“That’s the most important thing, that you feel better.”
Mother tried to say something, but Father interrupted:
“You’ll feel better, you’ll see.”
The sofa creaked and I was sure that they were hugging. And I smiled, relieved that they weren’t going to get divorced like Mona’s parents. Then I tried to imagine what could have happened to Mother’s gall bladder and, without any connection, the rabbit’s eye came into my mind. And then I thought of Carolina’s mother: ever since she died, biopsy seems a cloudy word to me.
But no, Grandma is right, with Mother it’s completely different.
Translated by Alistair Ian Blyth
“Slices of Lemon, Anca Vieru’s debut volume, contains twenty short and very short prose pieces, which are amusing, ironic, lemony, about life in a number of its incarnations, be they love affairs, family life, childhood, sadness, tragedy. In brief, Slices of Lemon brings to the surface what is extraordinary in the everyday. And it does it very well!”
(Eli BADICA, bookaholic.ro)
“I saw myself in the woman who ‘illegally’ reads letters and the women who pick up on every detail. I was amused by the glass breakers and the unfortunate man with the scissors under his t-shirt. I was saddened by the leaves and the piano tunes. This collection of stories is worth reading, at least in order to count how many similar situations you have found yourself in up to now. It is strange, unusual how somebody who hasn’t lived your life and doesn’t know you can intuit so many things about you, as if reading your fortune in the coffee grounds.”
(Andra PAVEL, semnebune.ro)
“Anca Vieru is a genuine prose writer, and there is poetry there too, between the lines. Obviously, I’m not going to tell you what each of the texts is about, but I think it is important that I at least tell you about the starting points of two or three of them… And let me confess how surprised I was, because from the very start, in the introductory story, Rabbit’s Eye, I detected the intention not to bore.”
(Constantin PISTEA, constantinpistea.wordpress.com)