Lucian Dan Teodorovici

Translated from Romanian by Alistair Ian Blyth


      I was a child, growing up at my grandparents', and one day someone stole the seven geese we had left to roam in the lane. On our street in front of everyone's yards there were patches of grass, and the villagers were in the habit of letting their geese or ducks roam free. It wasn't a problem; they never got mixed up. Geese and ducks have a herding instinct, if you can call it that with poultry: they loiter in groups near the yard where they were reared. What's more, perhaps because they assumed that some mad goose or some mad duck might nevertheless abandon its group and wander oƒ, the peasants used to paint a mark on the wings of their property. Ours had a kind of red comma painted on the right wing, a bit like the famous Nike logo, although at the time I didn't know what the Nike logo looked like, and I doubt my grandparents knew either. But there were also geese that wore a blue cross, and others a yellow dot. Or stranger markings, even. One of our neighbors, for example, painted a little fir tree on each of his sixteen geese. With green paint, of course. Another aroused his neighbors' indig- nation, including my grandmother's, by painting a phallus on the wings of his geese, in brown paint. Grandma was angry because I was only eight and I shouldn't have been exposed to that sort of thing, and so she made a complaint to the militia, along with some of our other neighbors. And the man then had to pluck the feathers of those eight geese emblazoned with a brown phallus on their left wing, and in its stead he painted a square, also brown, on their right. That neighbor hated us, because a square made no sense to him, but he hadn't been able to come up with anything better at the time, because the militiaman insisted on seeing the entire operation through, the plucking of the shameful feathers and the repainting of the birds, and it all happened within the space of about half an hour. And so our neighbor didn't have time to think up anything clever, especially see- ing as he was under threat of a hefty fine, though there was no law on the books banning the painting of phalluses on geese. I know this because the neighbor, as he was plucking the feathers, said he wanted to see a copy of that law, and the militiaman explained to him, calmly at first, then with less patience, that in our village hewas the law. And in the end he even started swearing and waving his truncheon at the phallus-painter menacingly.

     Grandfather too started cursing one day when he saw that our geese with their Nike mark were nowhere to be found. And he began to go from house to house, looking for them. I followed, more out of curiosity than anything else, although he let me tag along because he imagined that I, at the age of eight, must have had better eyes, and thus could spot things that he, at the age of sixty, would be unable to. In the end, it did turn out to be a good thing that he took me along. Because, while he was in a neighbor's yard, I stayed in the lane, bouncing up and down the rather deflated ball I'd brought from home so as not to get too bored during the search. And as my grandfather was talking to the neighbor in the yard, a gap-toothed, hare-lipped friend of mine came up. I told him our geese had been stolen and he said:
     "I fink I know who shtole them. They were on the corner of the street." He pointed to the place. "And that gypshy who stole our ball that time when we were playing football on the pitch by the railway shtation turned up," he added. "Honest. He was holding a shwitch and I shaw him driving the geesh up there to the water tower. I don't know if they were yoursh, but they had marks and I even thought, what the hell, gypshies don't mark their geesh."
     I went into the yard after my grandfather to call him outside. Grandfather told me to leave him in peace because he had things to discuss with the neighbor. Then I explained to him that I had picked up a lead, and he abruptly broke oƒ his discussion with the man and went outside. And my gap-toothed, hare-lipped friend told my grandfather the same story, which infuriated him no end. From my friend's description Grandfather realized that he knew the Gypsy in question: he was the son of somebody or other, I can't remember who.
      The water tower was on the street that led to where the gypsies lived, up on the hill. No one had the courage to go up there, because back then it seemed the gypsies somehow lived in another world. Even the militia didn't pay them any mind. The village militiaman, the same one who had yelled at the neighbor who'd painted phalluses on his geese and threatened him with his truncheon, always used to say that the gypsies weren't his problem, that they should form their own militia if that's what they wanted, but he wasn't going to get involved. My grandfather wasn't afraid, though, and this was because he had many friends among the gypsies, what with him being a conductor on the train and all. Chief conductor, even, as he used to say. And over the years he had let many of the gypsies in the village ride the train for free. They respected him, and when they saw him they would say: "Long life to you, Mr. Chief, sir!" They respected him not only because he had let them travel without a ticket in the past, but also be- cause they still had need of him, inasmuch as there were still a few years left until he retired. Once, when a neighbor's cow vanished, a neighbor who was a friend of Grandfather's, the old man had gone into the gypsies' neighborhood all by himself and come back leading the cow by a rope, only two hours later. The gypsies respected my grandfather.
      Now he was cursing, though, because it was a matter of our very own geese, not some neighbor's cow. And he told me to go home, because he was going to go and fetch the geese himself. But I didn't want to. Grandfather got angry with me too then, and said he would give me two smacks on the ass if I didn't obey. But I— because it was something that had worked for me before— just went up to him and hugged him, like this, from the side. I clasped my arms around his belly and begged him to take me with him. My grandfather was fond of me, after all, and so he said only this:
      "Listen, I'll take you, tadpole. But don't you budge from my side, or else I'll smack your ass ten times, not two! And don't you say a word, don't you get to talking with the gypsies ..."
     The truth is that my grandfather never smacked me, not even once, let alone twice or ten times. But he was always threatening me, and, though I have no idea why, sometimes I would even get afraid. I think now it was maybe because of his voice. Grandfather had a powerful voice. It always seemed like, if he said something, he was bound to follow through.

- - - - - -

     We entered the Gypsy neighborhood. Rickety houses, which up until then I had only seen from a distance. It somehow smelled odd even in the street, a pungent smell of oldness and damp. I was, I must admit, amazed at what I saw and I was thinking about how I would boast to all my friends that I had been down the gypsies' street and about how I would tell them about all the things they'd never seen. At the same time, I was proud of my grandfather, because the other children's grandparents or parents would never have had the courage to go there— let alone hand in hand with their children or grandchildren.
     Somewhere in front of us, on the right, we saw a few men and women gathered in a yard. I thought that must be where we were going, because my grandfather kept looking at them as we drew closer. But at the house right before, my grandfather stopped in front of an old fence, whose slats were largely rotten, broken, or missing, and unfastened the latch of the little gate. He went into the yard, dragging me behind him. In the yard, instead of a dog, there was a rather skinny pig, which was rooting with its snout under the doorframe. The door was crooked, hanging from a single hinge, and the pig kept thrusting its snout under, and the door was rattling around as though about to fall oƒ at any moment. My grandfather aimed at kick at the pig, which squealed, looked at him, but didn't budge. And then my grandfather gave it another kick. The pig moved aside, squealing again, and I laughed. It was funny how the pig glared at my father from where it decided to settle, about six feet away. Then my grandfather knocked at that door which was barely hanging from its hinge, and I thought it was sure to fall oƒ. It didn't fall oƒ; it opened. And in the doorway appeared a Gypsy with wisps of white hair poking out from under his hat. He said:
     "Well ..."
     And my grandfather greeted him.
     "Long life to you," he said.
     "Ah," went the old Gypsy. "Long life to you, Mr. Chief, sir!"
     Then the man fell silent and looked at Grandfather, and Grandfather seemed somewhat embarrassed. He didn't know how to begin.
     "Well?" went the Gypsy.
     "Er," said my grandfather, "won't you come out so that we can talk?"
      The Gypsy looked toward the yard next door, where we could see the men and women gathered, nodded his head, took oƒ his hat, brushed it oƒ, then put it back on his head, and looked at Grandfather once more.
     "I'll come out," he said.
     Grandfather stood aside, the old Gypsy came out and pulled his door shut behind him, after which he pointed to a log on the ground. Grandfather sat down, and I sat down beside him. And the old Gypsy looked around him, trying to find something, and at last he saw the upright log nearby, the one used for chopping wood, with an axe leaning on it. And on the log, as well as on the axe-head, there were traces of blood, but the old Gypsy went and brought the log over. He placed it in front of ours, and sat right down on top of the blood.
     "Well," said he, "what's it to be, Mr. Chief, sir? You ain't just here to pass
the time of day, eh?"
     "No," Grandfather shook his head. "I have chores to do at home."
     "Look here," my grandfather scratched the top of his head, "someone told me something about your kid."
     "I have seven or so geese," began my grandfather. "And today I couldn't find them."
     The old Gypsy frowned. He put his hand on his head, on his hat, then took it oƒ.
     "Someone said that he saw your kid bringing them this way."
     The old Gypsy stood up. He went like this, with his hands— as though to say "what the hell am I supposed to do now?," and in one hand, as I said, he was holding his hat. Then he flung his hat onto the ground, into the dust. And the skinny pig went up to the hat, snu‰ing around it with its snout. And the old Gypsy gave the pig a kick in the belly, but with such fury that the pig took oƒ at once, squealing like it would drop dead. After that, the man went into the house.
     I looked at my grandfather; I pulled his sleeve to make him look at me.
     "What is it?" I asked him. "Why did he go back inside?"
     "Shut up," my grandfather said.
      And no sooner had he said that than the door which was barely hangdragging ing from its hinge moved again, and from behind it emerged the old Gypsy, by his coat that other Gypsy who had stolen our ball that time when we were playing football on the pitch by the station. They came to a halt in front of us, and the old Gypsy whacked the young Gypsy across the back of the head.
     "Ow, Papa!" he howled. "Why you hitting me?"
     "You fucking halfwit," his father said, "them geese you pinched was the Chief's! Them you took?"
      And he whacked him over the head again and kicked his behind. I was starting to get scared, and so I squeezed my grandfather tightly by the hand, then I felt my grandfather squeeze my hand back and I was reassured.
     The old Gypsy kept on hitting his son, and his son kept bawling and saying: "Stop hitting me, Papa!" At one point, between two blows, the kid looked at me with so much hatred that it froze my insides and once again I squeezed my grandfather's hand, and he squeezed mine back and I was reassured. In the end, the old Gypsy calmed down or else he just got tired— but in any case he gave the young Gypsy one more clout across the nape and sent him into the house. Then he wiped the sweat from his brow, looked around him, spat, and bent down to pick up his hat. And then he came over to us and sat down on the blood-smeared stump once more.
     "Well," he said, "I didn't know, Mr. Chief, sir. That's all. So what can I do now?"
     "Well," said my grandfather, "give them back to me and we'll forget it."
     The Gypsy put his hat on, disheartened.
     "I'll give you them," he muttered. "But there's only five."
     "Only five? I just told you that I have seven."
     "That's as many as you had," said the old Gypsy. "On my life, yes, that's as many as you had."
     "Well, then?"
     "Well, then ... I cut two, 'cause I didn't know they was yours, Mr. Chief, sir. Look," he pointed down at the stump on which he was sitting: "I cut them."
     Fresh blood had recently trickled down the log, and the old Gypsy was pointing at it with his finger, by way of proof, and we followed his finger, looking.
     "Two?" asked my grandfather, amazed.
     "But how was I to know, damn it!" said the old Gypsy, and then he looked toward the house: "I could wring his neck, I could!" Then to us: "I didn't know, Mr. Chief, sir. My woman made us fried meat and soup, it's still cooking on the stove, so it is."
     "But two?" my grandfather repeated, still amazed.
     The old Gypsy waved his hands again. Grandfather sighed.
     "Well," he said, "I'll take back the other five. And we'll sort it out somehow with the other two."
     I had begun to relax, especially given that it really did seem, from the old Gypsy's expression, that he was sincerely sorry— so I was convinced that the whole aƒair would sort itself out. Except that, just as I had begun to relax, there were screams from the neighboring yard, the one where all the people were gathered. And we all turned in that direction. My grandfather rose and looked over the old Gypsy's head. I looked around the old Gypsy to the side. And the old Gypsy swiveled his head.
     Two burly gypsies were dragging a third into the yard next door, and the prostrate third had taken quite a beating. They were all about a hundred feet away, but it was clear how severely he'd been hurt. And then, the two who were carrying him let him fall into the dust. One of them bent down and ripped the hurt man's shirt oƒ. Then the other produced a whip, the sort you'd use to drive horses, and started lashing the fallen Gypsy's back. My fear was back. And because, leaning sideways, I'd had to let go of my grandfather's hand, I quickly reached out and squeezed it. Then my grandfather said to me:
     "Listen, what are you looking at, anyway? Haven't you got anything else to look at? Go on, look at that pig instead!"
     The pig was standing quietly next to our log, with its snout raised, sni~ng the air. The old Gypsy stood up and said to my grandfather:
     "Well, let's move away some. It's none of our business."
     And he dragged the blood-smeared log over to the wall of his house.
     "Look," said my grandfather, "if you just give us the geese, we'll be on our way. And we'll talk later about some sort of arrangement for the missing two."
     "Sit, Mr. Chief, sir," said the old Gypsy, a note of compassion in his voice now. "You've not come at a good time. Now's not the time to be going into the lane driving a gaggle of geese, you know."
     Then Grandfather stood up too and pulled me over to the wall. We both leaned against it.
     "Do you have a cigarette, Mr. Chief, sir?" the old Gypsy asked my grandfather, as soon as he had sat back down on his log.
     "I do," said Grandfather.
     And he pulled out a packet of Ma˘ra˘sestis, extracting a cigarette with two fingers, which he then gave to our host. Soon there was one between his own lips as well. My grandfather didn't smoke. Or rather he smoked very rarely. He always kept a packet of Ma˘ra˘sestis on him, and he would smoke one of the cigarettes now and then, but not at all often. Only when he did. And, as I said, he only rarely did. Now he pulled a box of matches from his pocket, and lit his Ma˘ra˘sesti. Then he held the lighted match to the old Gypsy's Ma˘ra˘sesti. And they both began to smoke.
     "But what's all that there?" asked Grandfather, pointing at the yard next door.
      Whence could be heard the cracks of the whip and the howls of the one being whipped.
     "Well, our folk," said the old Gypsy.
     I leaned forward a little and again looked into the yard next door. The fallen man was still being whipped on his back. He was howling.
      "Not my business," the old Gypsy went on. "His kin are giving him a licking. If he's done wrong, that's what he deserves," he added.
     Grandfather pulled my head toward him.
     "What are you doing? Haven't you got anything better to look at? Look at the pig," he said.
     I looked at the pig. It had come up to the old Gypsy, who gave it a kick in the rump.
     "Scram," he told the pig and spat at it. "Get going, damn you."
     Then he took another puƒ on his cigarette, and the pig went away.
      "But what happened?" insisted grandfather.
     "I wouldn't like to say," said the old Gypsy, "with your boy around, Mr. Chief, sir. I wouldn't like to say. He was tried, is all."
     "Tell me," said grandfather. "The boy's old enough."
      "Well, what can I say? If he couldn't keep his pelengheroin his pants!"
     "Aha," went Grandfather, but I understood nothing. "And they tried him, did they? Isn't a man allowed to go out once in a while and ..."
     He made a sign.
     "Well, that he is!" said the old Gypsy. "But not with our married women ... "
     "Aha," said Grandfather, and I began to understand, vaguely, how things stood. "And they caught him?"
     "Worse," said the old Gypsy. "He was drunk on a few bottles of moland got to bragging. Said she was seventeen years old. Didn't say which. Well, we've four married women of seventeen, none others. Them four there."
     The Gypsy pointed with his finger. Grandfather leaned forward. I leaned forward too. In the doorway there were, indeed, four Gypsy women, who were looking at the man on the ground. They weren't weeping; they weren't afraid. They were just standing there. And the one on the ground was no longer howling, he was just lying there, and it was plain— even from a hundred feet away— that he was covered in blood.
     "Not one of them said it was her. And now the women's kinfolk and his kinfolk, they're beating him so that he'll tell. Me, I'd tell, 'cause I wouldn't lose my own hide for the sake of some slut. But he's crazy. He'll make them beat him till he tells.
      "What will happen to him if he doesn't tell? How long will they beat him?"
     "Till he tells."
     "What if he won't tell? They'll end up beating him to death."
     "Well, that's his misfortune. If he's crazy and won't tell."
     "And what'll happen to her if they find out who she is?"
     "Well!" went the old Gypsy and waved his hand like this. "Well," he added. "We have a law. Her husband hangs her by his own hand."
      "Aha," went Grandfather.
     "It's none of our business," said the old Gypsy and tossed away his Ma˘ra˘sesti, trampling it with his worn-out shoe. "But you can't be leaving now with them geese."
     The old Gypsy sucked his gums and nodded.
      "Don't know why the hell he don't tell. But it's none of our business, is it?"
     "No," agreed my grandfather.
     "We have to reckon up for them two geese."
     "Then," said Grandfather, "I'll put it to you it like this: you'll send your boy to work two days in my field for each goose. Potato picking."
     The old Gypsy again took his hat in his hand. He scratched his head.
     "He's lazy ..."
     "Lazy or no, I'm telling you this is how we'll make our peace," my grandfather said.
     "Four days?" asked the Gypsy.
     "Got another cigarette?"
     The old man took out the packet of Ma˘ra˘sestis again. He extracted a cigarette with two fingers and handed it to the old Gypsy. Then he took the box of matches from his pocket, lit one, and held it to the cigarette between our host's lips.
     I leaned forward again. The two burly men had lifted the fallen Gypsy oƒ the ground. Now they were dragging him to the house. They stood him up against the wall. But the accused slid down and fell on his rump. Then he fell sideways, scraping the wall, next to the feet of the four women who were in the doorway. One of the burly gypsies kicked him in the guts, and the other kicked him right in the face. I closed my eyes for a moment, waiting to hear his cries, but there was nothing. Then I opened them and saw that the first burly Gypsy, the one who had kicked him in the guts, had pulled out a knife. And he said something to the women, waving the knife back and forth in front of their faces. They flinched somewhat, but didn't answer. Then, the burly Gypsy tossed the knife in the air and caught it by the handle, blade down. And he leaned toward the Gypsy fallen at the women's feet.
     My grandfather said, "What the hell are you doing? Look at that pig, how funny it is." He pulled me by the coat. The pig was sprawled on the ground next to the log, rubbing its back against it. I was quite frightened and didn't find the pig at all funny now. But I went on watching it, in silence, because my grandfather wouldn't let me look into the yard next door.
     The old Gypsy was silent. And he smoked his Mr eti staring at the ground. But now and then he would suck his gums and spit. At one point he started to cough, with a rattle in his throat, and I looked up at him. His Adam's apple was quivering oddly, it would move up his throat, come back down, then move up again as he coughed. As though it were a ball sliding up and down under his old skin: up-down-up-down. As though it were alive, in fact. A mouse trapped under a carpet. And after he had done coughing, he asked Grandfather for yet another cigarette, and he gave him one, making exactly the same gestures as before. And the old Gypsy smoked the third cigarette in silence. But now and then he would turn his head and gaze into the other yard. Then, after he tossed away the third cigarette, he stood up and said to my grandfather:
     "I think you can leave now, Mr. Chief, sir. Let me give you the geese."
     He stood up and my grandfather followed him to the coop. I wanted to come too. But my grandfather barred my way with his hand.
     "You stay here," he said. "Wait here with the pig and I'll be back right away."
     But the pig had vanished somewhere. The door of the house was wide open and I suspected that the pig had gone inside, because there was nowhere else it could be. And then I took a step forward, moving away from the wall, and I looked into the yard next door.
     But there was no one there. At least, no one standing. There was only the accused, no one else. He was lying stretched out in front of the door. The others had left. I took a few steps forward, going over to the fence. The beaten Gypsy's face was still covered in blood, I could see that. And not only his face. His upper body was all furrowed with red lines; there was blood clotting all over his body. I couldn't get a closer look because the geese driven by my grandfather were honking behind me now, and he shouted:
     "What the hell are you doing over there? I told you to stay with the pig by the house."
     "But the pig's gone," I said.
     Grandfather looked and saw for himself that the pig was no longer in the yard. Behind Grandfather came the old Gypsy. Grandfather was holding a switch and driving the geese, and they were honking. They were unruly and wouldn't form a line to go through the gate. And so I went to one side and helped Grandfather to drive them properly.
     "Just you wait and see what a smack on the ass I'm going to give you for not listening," my grandfather said.
     The old Gypsy opened the gate and the geese went out into the lane. I went out after them, but Grandfather stopped in front of the gate and shook the old Gypsy's hand.
     "So it's settled, four days, as we agreed," said Grandfather.
     The old Gypsy nodded.
     "I'm sorry, Mr. Chief, sir," he said. "Don't be angry, I didn't know they was yours."
     "All right, no great harm done," said Grandfather. "Let's forget it."
     "Well, long life to you, Mr. Chief, sir," said the old Gypsy.
     Grandfather saluted him, raising two fingers to his temple. Then he began to drive the five geese along the lane. I walked in silence alongside, now on one side, now on the other, so that our geese wouldn't stray oƒ. Then we left the gypsies' neighborhood, and before us rose the water tower. And it wasn't until then that my grandfather spoke.
     "What's on your mind, tadpole?" he said.
     That's what he used to call me, tadpole.


Excerpted from Best European Fiction 2011, forthcoming from
Dalkey Archive Press.




- - - - - -

Lucian Dan Teodorovici was born in 1975 in Ra˘da˘uti, Romania. He is the coordinator of the Romanian publisher Polirom's "Ego Prose" series, and senior editor of the Suplimentul de cultura˘ weekly. Between 2002 and 2006, he was editor-in-chief at Polirom, and he has contributed prose, drama, and articles to various cultural magazines in Romania and abroad, including Suplimentul de cultura˘, Timpul, Dilema veche, Observator cultural, Familia, ArtPanorama, Hyperion, Discobolul, Orizont, Evenimentulzilei, Cotidianul, Wienzeille (Vienna), and Au sudde l'Est (Paris). He has written screenplays for several film projects, including an adaptation of his own 2002 novel Circul nostru va˘prezinta˘(2002; Our Circus Presents, 2009). His books include
Cu putin timp înaintea coborîrii extraterestrilor printre noi (Shortly Before the Extraterrestrials Descended Among Us, 1999) and Lumea va˘zuta˘ printr-o gaura˘ de ma˘rimea unei tiga˘ri marijuana (The World Seen through a Hole the Width of a Spliƒ, 2000).

Alistair Ian Blyth translates from Romanian. His published translations include Little Fingers by Filip Florian, An Intellectual History of Cannibalism by Ca˘ta˘lin Avramescu, and Our Circus Presents by Lucian Dan Teodorovici.




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