“Halt!” said the goddess of hunting in front of a fishmonger’s: in the enormous aquarium in the window was a throng of fish, a dense shoal of flesh, slowly moving in formation, now to the right, now to the left, each time bumping their snouts against the glass. “Come on, buy me a fish!”
“But what do you need one for?” said Pavel, surprised. “You could have bought one ready cooked from the restaurant!”
“Just because! I need one!” she flung the words over her shoulder as she entered the shop.
And in he went after her, straight away.
The girl asked for a carp, which she pointed out in the aquarium. And the middle-aged vendor, wearing a sleeveless overall, under which were visible the straps of her black bra, picked up a kind of scoop, with which she deftly extracted the fish. Diana looked at it, thought for a while, changed her mind, and then pointed to a bigger fish. The woman cast the carp back in and caught the other, which weighed about two kilos, took it out of the scoop with her hand and plumped it down on the scales.
The customer asked her to clean the fish, but the vendor, without looking at her, replied rather peevishly that it couldn’t be done, because she didn’t have anywhere to wash it: the drain was blocked, the damned shop owner had been doing some makeshift, shoddy repairs, so as not to spend too much money.
“Look at how it’s overflowing!” said the woman in annoyance, scratching her close-cropped hair. “Not even drain cleaner can unblock it!”
And she pointed behind the aquarium, where, from the floor tiles, a miniature fountain was, indeed, spurting. It was not until then that the two realised that they were standing with their feet in a puddle of water…
Diana frowned, and handed over the money in disgust. The woman placed the fish in a bag and the two went out of the fishmonger’s shop.
They bumped into a lass wearing black tights and thick make-up, with whom Diana straight away began to natter, forgetting all about Pavel, who was waiting a little way off, holding the plastic bag with the carp, which now and then would give a short, heavy jerk. After a while, the goddess of hunting bade the girl farewell and then, walking briskly down the street, through the people who parted before her, began to tell a story about something and to laugh. And her gusts of laughter caused the passers-by to look at her, and this made her laugh all the louder.
Pavel nodded his head, as if he had heard what she was saying: but it was obvious that his thoughts were elsewhere—maybe he was thinking about how she kept him at a distance, like a dogturd in the rain, and didn’t introduce him to her friend, asked Diana. And this question, although put in the tone of a girl who was one of the gang, made Pavel’s face pucker: the blood was throbbing in his head, rustling in his ears, darkening his vision.
Nevertheless, Diana offered him her hand so that they could dash across the boulevard. He grasped it quickly, dizzied as if by that small palm’s sweet promise of moisture and warmth. At the edge of the pavement on the other side, however, she brusquely let go of his hand, shaking her own, as if he had sullied it:
“You’re sweating,” she grimaced, laughing.
And she did not say another word until they reached her house, in a block of flats behind Alexandru Square, which she always used to talk about at the Odeon, because from her window, apparently, she had a view “just like on telly, with the Bahlui, and Galata Hill, and the whole city spread out as far as Cetățuia!” She climbed the stairs without a word, holding the banister, and behind her came the son of the glazier, carrying a squirming bag.
As soon as they entered the bedsit, Diana kicked off her sandals, each clattering in turn against the wall in the hall. She hung her handbag on a hook and thrust Pavel into the kitchen. Extracting a large knife from under the pile of dishes in the sink, she solemnly handed it to him, telling him to clean the fish: how was she supposed to do it!
After that, she vanished into the bathroom.
Pavel was left standing there. In amazement, he examined the smoke-blackened walls of the kitchenette that she called the kitchen, the fridge plastered with stickers, the formerly white paint of the table. He tried to divine the nature of the indistinct sounds from coming from the rest of the block: here, the walls were thick and the sounds were muffled, unlike in his flat in a gypsy ghetto, where you could hear the neighbours’ conversation even when they were talking at a normal volume. And all of a sudden, as he stood there with that great big knife in his hand, the question flashed through his mind: what on earth was he doing here?
He emptied the carp from the bag into the sink and sat on a stool, gazing at the fish as it writhed and flapped its tail against the yellowing cast iron, crammed between a glass, some plates and a plastic dish scrubber. When Diana appeared in the doorway, wafting into the kitchen a warm scent of milk and honey (he recognised it as “Dulgon” shower gel), Pavel gave a start as if she had caught him at something red-handed, and he jumped to his feet. And it was not until now that he saw how petite she was: swaddled in a blue dressing gown, glued to her damp skin, and without her high-heels, she looked like a wee girl. Out of the elastic with which she had tied back her hair a few wet strands were straggling, as curly as vine tendrils, tumbling over her ears. He took her head in his hands, brushing the rebellious locks behind her ears, amazed that her hair had the colour of ripe silk and he had been too stupid to notice it until now!
He had been just about to tell her this, but her dark eyes flashed daggers at him and she thrust his hands away from her ears. Without a word, she took the fish from the sink, making abrupt movements. She dropped it back into the bag, and opened the fridge, cramming it into the freezer compartment:
“Why doesn’t it just die already?”
Then, turning towards Pavel with her hands on her hips, she started scolding him, I mean, what kind of man was he, incapable of even cleaning a fish! After that she turned brusquely on her heel and with two strides she was in the living room. Through the half-open door Pavel saw her fling herself on the bed and start doing her make-up.
And, as she sat there with the mirror in her hand, the unusually prominent bones of her joints were visible in all their ugliness, illumined by the direct light of the sun. Once again, it was on the tip of his tongue to ask her what was wrong with her, because he didn’t believe she had been born like that, with those awful lumps, but instead he mumbled something, as if apologising for not being able to gut a fish, he didn’t know why, maybe because he had one at home in an aquarium. Or maybe it was because fish reminded him of something from long ago, something both good and bad. And he sat down on the stool once more and told her through the open door of the kitchen about the July day when he, still a young lad at the time, had gone with Veronica, the neighbour of his grandmother in the country, and gathered eels and carp and redeye and whatever else they found on the waterlogged flood plain of the River Prut.
It had been raining like the devil for a number of days and the Prut had swollen, here and there bursting the tall dyke. It would have burst in more places, but the villagers and the border guards were there on the riverbank day and night, patching and reinforcing the dyke with sandbags. The church bells rang all night long, grimly, and the women and children slept with one eye open, their possessions packed, ready to flee should the waters rise higher. But it was not to be: the rains abated, the Prut was pacified, and the sun came out. “O Lord, the Blessed Sun! Great fortune!” said his grandmother Lelica, making the sign of the cross, “my sister’s village is under water, and even Ceausescu came in his helicopter to see the disaster!”
But in their village only the flood plain was waterlogged, fields thick with grass and blackberry bushes and willow trees, now thronged with fish of all sizes. The women and children went there and caught them in their hands and in bushel baskets and in grain scoops, and they filled sacks and buckets and troughs with them, in the end even their aprons, and brought them home. They slit them open, gutted them, salted them and put them out to dry on their fences and thatched roofs, “for winter.” The whole village gleamed in the sun. It was silvery-white from the fish scales, so that you would have thought it had been snowing. “And have they put any fishes on the church roof to dry?” he asked Lelica in amazement, pointing at the white roof of that place of worship that stood by the bank of the Prut. “No, it’s the new tin roof, which they made last year, because the old one was leaking into the pulpit,” laughed the old woman.
Lord, how the village stank of fish and salt and sunlight! And of rotting guts—enough to turn your stomach. You’d have thought it was who knows what.
The rains had caught Pavel in the village, where he was spending the holidays, and so, as soon as the sun came out, Veronica fetched him and the two of them went “to the flooding”, beyond the barbed wire fence that separated the village from the strip of border with the USSR. They waded through the water, looking at how the fish, both large and small, were gliding between their legs and through the thick strands of lungwort and Aaron’s rod with their pollen-laden yellow clusters…
Veronica was holding her skirts up, exposing her legs above the knees, much whiter than lower down. Now and then the water would splash and the fish scattered in every direction. And she was laughing. She had tied her hair back with a pink ribbon, which had come loose, so that locks of her hair tumbled over her ears, face and throat. After a while, her dress became so drenched that she no longer bothered to lift it up (“There’s no point, make’s not the devil of a difference!”) and, since it was glued to her body, a boy from the village gazed at her long and said: “What lovely leg’s you’ve got, Veronica!” And she laughed and splashed him with her foot, and he laughed, too, and soaked her with his hand, and she was laughing fit to burst (and Pavel hated her then, but only a little)… But when the cheeky lad slipped a frog down the front of her dress, she did get annoyed. And she took Pavel by the hand and they went to the other side of the church.
Yes, he can see the merry Veronica even now, before his very eyes, as she tousled his hair with her wet hands and he glimpsed her nape whiter than the rest of her neck, with its little black curls like vine tendrils. And a lock of hair dangled over her ear, covering it, and he stood on tiptoes and brushed it to one side; and he was amazed at how small her ear was, and how downy the inside of her ear was, and how rosy it was in the light of the sun! And he also saw how Veronica wore a red thread in her ear and he asked her what it was, and she told him that she had had it pierced for an earring, that her sister-in-law had given her some earrings for her birthday. And he asked how she had made the hole and she told him that her mother had pierced her ear with a red-hot needle and rubbed it with salt and then inserted this red thread until the wound healed so that she could put on the earrings afterwards. She told him that her mother pierced the ears of all the girls and women in the village, as her grandmother had done before her, because you couldn’t rely on doctors: they passed through the village barely stopping and then only to fill their purses… And Pavel stood there looking stupidly at her ear, in the middle of the floodwater, until Veronica laughed and gave him a shove, so that he almost fell into the water. And she sprinkled his face with her hand and then said: “Come on, let’s fill the buckets and go home, wee dove, or your mother will kill me.”
There, by the church, they crammed their buckets with fish, covering them with some plastic bags. Then they clambered back up the riverbank and headed home. But they lingered for a moment to look at how the church was reflected in the waters of the Prut, swollen and yellow, full of tree trunks ripped up by the wind, dead cattle and even houses. And Veronica, screwing her eyes up and gazing at the willow and poplar woods on the Bassarabian side of the river, all of it under water, to the left and to the right as far as the eyes could see, started to laugh, joyfully: “Now the spies can cross easily from the USSR, because they won’t leave any footprints and the border guards’ dogs won’t be able to smell them!” But Pavel said, in amazement: “What would spies from the USSR want here in our country?”
“Would you listen to him!” she said to hush him, instead of giving an answer, raising a finger in the air. And they both pricked up their ears, because from between the willow trees on the other side, in which the cuckoos and the wild doves were singing raucously, the gruff voices of some unseen men could be heard, voices that made Pavel shudder.
It was not the first time he had seen the banks of the Prut from such a close distance, because Lelica was always going to the church, even at night, for the midnight mass on the feast of the Resurrection, when it seemed that the whole village used to assemble at that old house of the Lord, perched on the high riverbank. How wonderful it was then, at night, when the service moved outside, for the procession around the church, with the willows and the poplars in the darkness on the Bassarabian side of the river, only ten or twenty metres away, with the black, troubling mirror of the waters below them! You should have seen how the faces of the people were illumined from below by the candles… And the voices of the priest and the villagers from the choir seemingly multiplied and burgeoned, burgeoned, because the Prut Valley would become a kind of echo chamber for them… Everything seemed mysterious there on that night.
But strangely, now, in broad daylight, with the fish among the grasses and those voices from the left bank and the thought that spies might cross from the other side, the mystery of the ever-guarded river seemed impenetrable. This is why he felt turned inside out by the excitement. And there was so much sunlight on the rich foliage of the willows and such a brilliant sky and such a merry hubbub among the fish-gatherers that he felt his heart bursting with a terrible joy, Pavel went on and then fell silent.
Translated by Alistair Ian Blyth