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Bogdan Popescu


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Novel, "Ego Prose" series, Polirom, 2007, 432 pages

Copyright: Polirom

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Not long before losing the heath of his body and mind, Priest’s Dad was getting ready to take some yellow melons to market in the big city. He had a craving to stand behind a stall, to hawk his wares in a booming voice, to joke with the customers who seemed inclined to buy or to bicker with those he suspected of having no mind to dig in their pockets. He was eagerly looking forward to catching the scent of the market in his nostrils. Just by thinking about it, this scent, mingled with the hubbub of the throng, used to elate him like a glass of new wine. He himself had not been to market for many years : he would take care to send others in his stead, because to him, in his pride in finely crafted commercial transactions, it seemed that market-stall haggling no longer rose to the loftiness of his imposing stature. And so he sent others. But now he had an old man’s yearning for bustle, for the odour of pickled cabbage, tarragon, parsley and dill, apricots, peaches, garlic, cucumbers, for the eternally damp asphalt, for the griddle that dispersed the dense fumes of grilled sausages, for the sparrows that nested and quarrelled raucously under the market roof. The evening before, he had readied a tall wicker basket : in it he had placed the yellow melons, arranging them with care, and, to cushion them against jolts and blows, he had sprinkled straw between them. In vain did his son, the priest, strive to convince him that the bus tickets and the market surcharge would cost him just as much – if not more than – the amount he would earn on the goods to which he was so carefully tending. The old man, usually offhand, curt, and forbidding with those who defied him in any way, had merely waved his hand in weary disdain, thereby asking to be left in peace. In the morning, he shook one of his grandsons, who, in the still undissipated mists of sleep, cursed him by his mother and swore at him by many things that were holy. In the end, the grandson rose from bed grumbling and did not hold his peace until receiving a clout across the back of the head. From the shed he fetched his grandfather’s famed barrow, and loaded it with the basket, which was covered with a wicker mat sewn with the thin wire usually used for making beehive frames. In the cool and the disquiet of morning, the old man walked silently towards the bus stop. For the first time in his life he distinctly heard the noise the wheels of the barrow made on the sand, the gravel and the grey cobbles of the road. “I’ve grown old, devil take it,” he said to himself and barely stifled a sigh. His grandson helped him to put the basket in the belly of the bus with chipped and peeling paintwork. And then, when he saw the old man climbing the steps, he cursed him aloud for the clout he had been dealt. “Aha !” a woman sitting on the first seat observed almost with joy. “You’ve gone soft, old man ! Remember when you whacked me on the head with a wooden spoon, when I said you hadn’t put enough onions in the meatballs ? Not so strong now, are you ? Your manhood shrivelled up, has it ?” Priest’s Dad muttered something, from which the uppity woman understood that she would have to be carried away on a stretcher if she dared receive between her legs the stallion vigour of the trader, and that the thrusts of his member would pierce as far as her throat. The woman appeared ready to try what Priest’s Dad suggested, but she doubted that she would require any stretcher. The boaster would demonstrate foresight if he readied a coffin for himself, because, after bedding her, there was no way he could remain alive. The old man made no further retort and headed calmly towards the back of the bus. But after he went three paces, he muttered to himself : “Shut that mouth of yours…” He sat down on the benches above the engine. A tendril of burnt diesel smoke rose between them. He pulled his hat over his eyes, lowered his chin to his chest, and was soon asleep. Two hours later, the driver came to wake him. He alighted, stretched his numb loins and stiff neck, and removed the basket from the belly of the vehicle. He gave some small change to an urchin who helped him carry his wares into the market over the road. Here, he was elated neither by the frolicking of the sparrows that nested under the roof, nor by the smells he had been craving, nor by the bustle, nor by the swarming crowd. He could not understand what was happening to him, what he was doing there, alien and awkward in that dizzying ants’ nest. People kept bumping into him and telling him to get out of the way. Just as he was about to bend over his basket and unfasten the mat that covered it, sewn with wire for beehive frames, he espied on the high concrete fence that separated the market from the immense grounds of the mental hospital a man calmly looking at the ants’ nest from aloft. Then he climbed down and headed towards Priest’s Dad without hesitating and without letting him out of his sight. The trader racked his brains and all of a sudden, exceedingly clearly, he knew just what he was doing there. He abandoned the basket in the market and headed towards the hospital gates. For a long while he groped, at the doors of the dozens of wards scattered among the trees of the endless park. Nonetheless, after asking a number of people he met along the asphalted lanes, he found the ward in which his lawfully wedded wife languished gazing vacantly at the high ceiling from which dust-blackened strands of spider’s webs dangled. He sat down beside her on the edge of the bed and began to talk to her evenly, in a voice that was neither loud nor a whisper, to tell her about things at home, about how sales were going, about making plum brandy at the back of the barn, and about the sweets in the larder tucked out of sight of prying eyes. He asked her questions, to which he also replied, and now and then he wiped her mouth with a handkerchief soaked in water. A few hours later he decided to leave. He rose from the bed, straightened his rumpled clothes, and felt around in the large, deep pockets of his apron. He pulled out two green apples and a few walnuts, which he placed next to the woman, who had not taken her gaze from the same spot on the ceiling for even a moment. On the pavement in front of the hospital, he had time to see the dust, the discarded coloured wrappers, the sun-scorched weeds. “Would you look at what the devil – Lord, forgive me – I’m thinking of now : I’m imagining what some pigweed mixed with dust from the tarmac would taste like.” Then he departed on the dilapidated bus and fell asleep with his eyes fixed on a hole in the floor, through which could be descried the racing, ashen road. When he found out that his father had returned from the market without his basket, the priest decided on the spot to send the old man and his second wife to the hut without electricity and drinking water, situated in a hollow between two hills, where every year he sowed wheat.

 


The mayor nicknamed Rat’s Head had, besides his trade as a tailor, also taken up rabbit rearing. He had set up dozens of hutches. He had learned to crossbreed them in such a way that the does would give birth only to healthy pups with fine pelts. He knew when to slaughter them so that the fur would be at its thickest. After salting the skins and drying them, he stuffed them into sacks and headed to the bottom of the garden, which ended in the fearful Valley of the Mineshaft, then crossed the dried-up streambed, among the dwarf elders, burdock and long hemlock stalks, and arrived in the back yard of Dogger, the old skinner and tanner. He would buy the rabbit pelts from the mayor, tan them and skilfully fashion them into hats and coats, which, however, he did not sell in the village – because no one would buy from him since it had been discovered that was trading in dog lard – but sent them to someone who knew how to make good money from them in the markets, bazaars, and fairs that were held around the big city. That afternoon, Rat’s Head had crossed the stile that led to the Valley of the Mineshaft, and was walking through the tall burdock, with a lit cigarette in his mouth and two deep creases between his eyebrows, a sign that he was inwardly tormented or that he wished at all costs to look serious, like when the neighbours’ devil children – so as to laugh at him secretly – would ask him how he told a he-rabbit apart from a she-rabbit and he, confident that he was uttering scientific terms, would answer that the best way was to look between their hind legs to see whether they had “testiclenuts.” In this way, he was convinced that he had a dignified bearing before the lads who questioned him about the secrets of scientific rabbit breeding, in other words – to use the term he had learned from the Director, his former teacher of biology and agricultural and zoo-technical sciences – cuniculiculture. He crossed the stream at the bottom of the Valley, taking care not to get muddy. Then he began to climb the slope on the other side. He reached the tanner’s back yard and entered. The young Dogger, as they used to say, even though the man had lately reached the age of seventy – they called him young to distinguish him from his father – was straining with a sledgehammer and some iron spikes to split a sinewy, bristling poplar log dragged up by its roots from the banks of the Danube. A dazed black snake emerged from a hollow in the trunk. After a few moments of confusion it darted away ; it hastened to the thickets of the Valley, as though it had known the way since the day it was born. “As if there weren’t enough snakes there already,” the mayor found himself thinking. “That’s all we needed…” But instead words of greeting issued from his mouth : “Cheers, cousin !” “Long life !” the other croaked in response, as he raised the sledgehammer to strike the blunted, bent end of a spike. Then he laid down his tool and asked for a cigarette. The young Dogger always seemed to be tormented by philosophical problems. He had never been able to forgive Foişte, the man of culture, for having ignored him when, on the occasion of a meal with mountains of doughnuts and red wine, he asked him how he reconciled science and faith, because each says something different about the world. Now he addressed his guest in a rather haughty voice : “Tell me, cousin and Mr Mayor, is it not so that God can do anything ? Well, if it’s true, let God make me a wall so high that not even he can jump it ! Eh ? What do you say to that, mister ? I mean, not even God to be able to do something ?” “Nice one…” mumbled Rat’s Head, but more so as not to remain silent. “Nice one, cousin !” But his mind was not on what stupidities Dogger might think up next. He was thinking about what had happened to him earlier, and whether it would be appropriate to tell the whole thing to the man he called cousin, even though they were in no way related. Because he did not have much work to do at the town hall – and even if he had, he felt no pangs whatsoever about leaving that wretched building which was consuming his life – that day he had got it into his head to cut (which is to say, “to sacrifice,” as the textbooks put it) a few rabbits. Back when he had been a pupil at the trade school for tailors, he had pinched from the workshop a piece of grey whetstone, which the master, enchanted by its fineness, proudly used to call “Mississippi stone,” using it to perfect the blades of barber’s tools or surgical instruments, for he was also skilled in the ways of grinding. And when he was in hospital, following an infectious bite on the day he was received into the ranks of the apprentices, he had managed to pilfer a scalpel, which for a few minutes had left the sight of one of the bewilderingly large number of people in white coats. It had become his knife for sacrificing and flaying, as part of the cuniculiculture he had successfully been practising for some time. He would grasp the animal by the hind legs, deal it a sharp blow to the nape with the edge of his palm, hang it up head downwards, then quickly open its throat with the scalpel and leave it to bleed. Even if it already seemed dead or only stunned (following the scientific procedure called “spinalisation,” which had been performed with the edge of the palm), the rabbit would jerk, would struggle, would double up every time the blade suddenly entered its throat. That morning, Rat’s Head had spent a good half hour in the sun, polishing the stubby blade of the scalpel on the grey whetstone. He was sitting on a three-legged stool in the middle of the yard. He allowed the gentle warmth to caress and lull him. Now and then he would lift the blade into the strong light, to discern whether it was perfect or not. Then he slowly rose and set off towards the hutches. He had grasped the nape of a rabbit prone to evil, which was in the habit of savagely biting the “testiclenuts” of the other males. Some of the bites would become infected and the rabbits would have to be slaughtered. Perhaps enervated by the heat, which he had allowed to coil itself around him like a reptile, Rat’s Head had accidentally let go of the he-rabbit, which had been struggling bitterly. As soon as it hit the ground, it had legged it through the vegetable patch, which looked rather like a larger hutch, walled in as it was by a barbed wire fence. The mayor had gone in, fastened the gate behind him, and chased after the escapee. Rat’s Head had demolished tomato stems, trampled under foot aubergines, peppers, and potato beds. The beanstalks had been crushed into the soil. The devilish animal had not allowed itself to be caught in any wise. The man had lost his temper. He was exhausted. His black moustache was soggy with sweat. He had ripped up a stake which had been supporting a stem and decided to deal a “spinalisation” to the rebel such as was not described in the textbooks. He had grazed it with a passing swipe, cornered it, and was preparing to deal the deathblow. The rabbit had sat, and then jumped up on its hind legs. Its whiskers were feeling the air. And its eyes had narrowed. Then it laid into its attacker : “Listen here, limp dick ! Haven’t you got the least bit shame ? ! ?” Rat’s Head had felt a need to sit down. And he collapsed onto a potato patch, while the rabbit calmly walked past him, opened the gate, and vanished who knows where. After a while he had come to his senses, got up, and opened the doors of all the hutches. The rabbit tribe had scattered, dispersing throughout the village. Only the does with suckling pups had remained, unable to abandon them. The mayor had taken pity on them and sworn in his soul that he would allow those creatures to die of old age. Then he had set off determinedly to Dogger’s. Now he was standing rather puzzled as he listened to the young one’s stupidities about the power and impotence of God. He cleared his throat and announced in the official tone he used when he was solemnising marriages : “I have come to inform you and your father that, commencing today, our commercial partnership has ended.” Seeing the man’s gaping mouth, he added : “Cheers !” turned on his heel and headed back across the Valley. His soul cried out in pain and helplessness when he realised that from across the entire village the murderous scent of roast rabbit was rising to the heavens.


Translated by Alistair Ian Blyth



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