I don't pretend to know what other people are like, but for myself, I seem to feel my heart throb with joy even to this day when I remember my birthplace, my home at Humuleşti, the post supporting the flue of the stove, round which mother used to tie a piece of string with tassels at the end of it, with which the cats played till they dropped exhausted, the flat ledge of the stove that I used to cling to when I was pulling myself up and learning to walk, the place on top of the stove where I used to hide when we children played at hide-and-seek, as well as other games and delights full of childlike fun and charm. Lord, what good times those were, for parents and brothers and sisters were hale and hearty, there was everything needful in the house, the sons and daughters of our neighbours were for ever romping with us, and everything was exactly as I liked best, without a shadow of ill-humour as if the whole world were mine! I myself was as happy as the day was long, whimsical and playful like the gusting wind.
Mother, who was well-known for her spells and cantrips, would say to me sometimes with a smile as the sun peeped from behind the clouds after prolonged rain: "Go outside, you fair-haired child, and laugh at the sun, maybe the weather will change." And the weather did change at my smile.
The sun no doubt knew what I was capable of, for I was my mother's son, and she in truth could work wonders: she would chase away the black clouds overhanging our village and drive the hail away into other places by sticking the axe into the ground, outside the door; she would so curdle water by means of a couple of beef bones that the people crossed themselves in amazement; she would hit the ground, the wall or any wooden thing that I bumped my head against saying: "Take that!" and forthwith the pain was gone.
When the red embers moaned in the stove, which is supposed to foretell wind and bad weather, or when the embers hissed, a sign that someone is talking about you, mother would scold the hearth and beat it with a poker to make the enemy shut up. More than that, if I didn't look as well as she thought I ought to, she would immediately lick her finger and make a muddy mixture with dust from the heel of her shoe, or, if she was in much of a hurry for that, she would take soot from the stove and say: "As heel or stove are free of the evil eye so let my baby be free of it!" and she would make a mark on my forehead lest her precious pet come to harm. These and many more things did she do.
That's what mother was like when I was a child, full of strange and wonderful practices, as far as I remember; and well do I remember, for she rocked me in her arms as I sucked at that sweet breast of hers and nestled in her bosom, babbling and fondly looking up into her eyes! I have taken my blood of her blood and my flesh of her flesh; I've learnt speech from her and wisdom from God at the time when a man has to distinguish between good and evil.
But time was craftily rushing by me and I grew up unawares; thoughts ever different crossed my mind and desires ever new stirred in my soul, and instead of growing wiser I grew more and more restless and my longings now knew no bounds. Fickle and deluding is man's thought and you soar upon its wings at the bidding of ceaseless yearnings and there is no peace until you're laid in your grave!
But woe to him who gives in to such thoughts! All unbeknownst the river of life is wafting and sucking you into the deep; and from the height of happiness you're suddenly cast down into the depths of sorrow.
Let us rather talk of the days of our youth, for youth alone is merry and innocent. And there, when all is said and done, is the truth of the matter.
What does it signify to a child when father and mother talk about the hardships of life, of what the morrow may hold in store for them, or when they are worried by harrying thoughts? Astride a stick a child thinks he is riding a most wonderful horse and gallops apace in high spirits, purposefully whips it and curbs it and shouts at it until you're deafened; and if he falls, he thinks it's the horse that's thrown him and it is the stick that bears the brunt of his anger.
That is what I was like at that happy age and that's what I think all children have been like ever since the beginning of the world, no matter what people may say.
Whenever mother was tired out and lay down a while to rest, we children would raise the roof. When father came home at night from the wood at Dumeniscu, frozen stiff and covered with hoarfrost, we would give him a fright by springing upon him, from behind, in the dark. And he, tired though he was, would catch hold of us, one by one, as in a game of blindman's buff, and would lift us to the ceiling saying: "What a tall boy!" and he would kiss us to his heart's content. When the rushlight was lit and father sat down to his meal, we would fetch the cats from their nooks in the stove or under the oven and we would rumple their fur and drill them before him so thoroughly that they had a rough time of it; and they couldn't get away, poor cats, before they had scratched and spat at us as we deserved.
"And there you are husband, looking at them and encouraging them, aren't you?" mother would say. "I say well done, cats! And as for you boys, you're a couple of rascals, for no living thing can find a shelter in this house because of you. There, since I've not given you a thrashing today, you plague those poor cats and jump upon a man as if you were dogs let loose! I'm blest if I don't think that sometimes you go a bit too far. Just let me get that stick from behind the rafter and I'll beat you black and blue."
"Come, leave them alone, wife, do! They are glad to see me back home, that's all," said father, swinging us up and down." They've not a care in the world: the wood is in, there's plenty of bacon and flour in the garret, cheese in the wooden tub, likewise, cabbage getting sour in the barrel, thank God! Let them just keep fit to eat and play now that they're small, for they'll get over romping as they grow up and cares gather around them; they won't escape that, never fear. Don't you know the saying: A child shall play; a horse shall draw; a priest shall read."
"It's easy for you to talk," said mother, "for you're not shut up in the house with them all day long, and that's enough to make your hair turn white and make you wish the earth would swallow them up, God forgive me! I wish the summer would come so that they could play outside a bit; for I've had so much of them that they set my teeth on edge like crab apples. All the devilish tricks that come into their minds, they put into practice. When the wood tapping1 begins to summon people to church, out rushes Zahei, that paragon of yours, and starts tapping the loom so that you can hear the very walls of the house creaking and the windows rattle. While Ion, that blockhead, with sheep-bell, tongs and fender raises such a hullabaloo as very nearly deafens your ears; then, with a rug on their backs and a paper cap on their heads, they sing:
until they drive you out of the house. And this goes on every day, two or three times a day, so that you would feel like giving them an almighty thrashing, if you were to take any notice of them."
"In a way it's as it should be, my good woman: you're a church-goer and known for it too, so the boys are providing you with a church-service to your heart's content on the spot; not that the church is so very far... From now on, set to work boys upon all-night vigils and as many odd ideas as you please, so that every day mother may give you honey buns, such as they have on the day of the Forty Martyred Saints, and corn-meal cake with ground walnuts."
"Indeed, are you in your right mind, my man? I did wonder why they're so good, poor dears; it's because you're encouraging them and backing them up. Just look at them, both sitting wide awake and staring into our eyes as if they were trying to make a portrait of us. Just you try to give them a job to do, then you'll see them dithering, sulking and whining," mother said. "Come now, off you go to bed, boys, for the night is soon gone, but what do you care as long as you get your food served up under your noses!"
When we had all gone to bed, children will be children: we'd start fighting and wouldn't sleep for giggling and tittering till mother, poor dear, must needs pull our hair and give us a few thumps in the back, and father, having had enough of such a row, would sometimes say to mother:
"Come, come, shut up! That's enough slapping and scolding. They're not old women who go to sleep standing up." But mother would then give us a few more thumps, saying:
"Take that and behave yourselves, you devils! I can't even rest at night because of your giggling."
In this way did my poor mother get some peace at last, God rest her now! But do you think that was the end of the matter? No fear! The following day at dawn, we would begin again, so mother took down "Godmother" again and thrashed us, but do you think that made any difference to us? You remember the saying:
Wicked, nasty skin
I recall as if they happened yesterday the things that came into our heads and all the myriads of things we did. Just try and remember every trifle of recent events and see if your mind is equal to the task, brother Ion. At Christmas when father killed the pig, singed and scalded it and quickly wrapped it up in straw to make it sweat, and thus easier to shave, I would bestride the pig, straw and all, and I would have the time of my life knowing that I would get the pig's tail to fry and the bladder to fill with grains, to blow it up and rattle when it was dry; and then alas, what a time mother's ears had of it, until she'd break it against my head!
But I mustn't lose the thread of my story!
One St. Basil's Day2, we boys of the village planned to take the New Year's plough3 round the village, for I was now in my teens, worse luck. And on the eve of that Saint's day I plagued father all day to make a bull drum4 for me; or, if not that, at least a fine whip.
"Heavens alive, I'll give you a whip, my boy," father said after a while. "Haven't you enough food at my house? Do you want those good-for-nothings to dump you in the snow? Just wait and I'll take your boots away, and then we'll see if you're so keen to go out."
Seeing that he was going on at me in this fashion, I slipped out of the house with only that pig's bladder, lest father should get hold of my boots and I be the laughing-stock of my comrades. And it somehow fell out that none of my companions had a bell. My cowbell was at home, but dare I go back for it? To make a long story short, we did our best and got together a broken scythe, a shaft-coupling, a pole-hook with a ring to it, together with my pig's bladder, and about vespers we started the round of the houses. And we began with Parson Oşlobanu's right up at the top of the village, planning to walk through the whole village. When we got there, the priest was outside his house sawing wood upon a trunk. As soon as he saw us standing under his windows and getting ready for carolling, he muttered a few oaths under his breath and said:
"The fowls have hardly gone to roost and here you are already! Just you wait a little, you little wretches and I'll give you something!"
Thereupon we took to our heels followed by the priest with a cudgel hard on us; for Parson Oşlobanu was an ill-tempered, crusty fellow.
We were so scared, we'd run halfway back through the village without having taken the opportunity to wish the priest:
A floor with fungus inches
as carol singers will at those houses that won't receive them.
"My word, what a devilish wicked parson," we said once we were all together, stiff with cold and frightened to death; "the damned hedge-priest very nearly lamed us. May we live to see him carried upon the bier into the church of Saint Demetrius under the castle, to which he is now attached. None else but Old Nick could have bidden the monster come and build his house in our village. God forbid that our priests should be like him, for you wouldn't so much as taste any of the church offerings, ever!" By the time we had slandered the priest and said nasty things about him, and done a few other things, dusk had set in.
"Well, what are we to do now? Let us go into this yard," said Zaharia, son of Bâtlan, "for we're wasting time standing here in the middle of the road."
And in we went, to Vasile-Aniţei's and stood under the window as was usual. But for sure the Evil One was making charms: one fellow did not strike his scythe because he was cold, another because his hands were freezing upon the shaft-coupling; my cousin Ion Mogorogea, the polehook under his arm, would argue and wouldn't join in the carol-singing. It was enough to make your heart burst with anger.
"You do the wishing, Kiriac," I said to Goian. "You Zaharia and myself shall roar like bulls, and these other fellows will join in the chorus."
And we started right away. And what do you think happened? That mean wicked wife of Vasile-Anitei came at us with the redhot fire-rake she was using to rake out the fire before cooking the pastry in the oven.
"May the fire consume you!" she said, thoroughly incensed. "What do you think you're up to? Who had the nerve to teach you lot?"
Now run for it, boys, quicker than we ran from Parson Oşlobanu!
"A fine mess this!" we ponder, stopping at the crossroads in the middle of the village, close by the church. "One or two more welcomes like that and we'll be driven out of the village, like gipsies. We'd better go home to bed."
Having settled things for the following year and sworn a solemn oath to go carolling together, we parted, stiff with cold and weak with hunger, and off we each went to our own homes and mighty glad we were to see them. And that's the story of our carol-singing that year!
And when it came to creaming the milk-pots, what a pickle I got into.
Be it fasting time or carnival, as soon as mother started to put out the milk to curdle, the very next day I began licking the curd off the top and continued to do so, day after day, till I'd reached the sour milk beneath. When mother came to skim the cream, skim it, Smaranda, if there is any!
"Maybe the witches have worked a charm upon the cows, mummy," I would say crouching in front of mother, by the pots, my tongue hanging out of my mouth.
"Lord, let me just catch that hobgoblin by the cream pot," mother would say, giving me a searching look, "and leave him to me! 'Godmother' up there behind the rafter will doctor him, so that the whole tribe of ghosts and witches will not get him out of my hands. You can tell the ghost who's eaten the cream by his tongue, I never could stand a sponger and a sneak and that's the honest truth, my boy. And mind you, God won't prosper him who steals, whether it be clothes or foodstuffs or whatever it may be."
"That's done it! Strike a match and the house is on fire," I said to myself, for I was not so stupid as to miss the meaning of her words.
When it came to old Chiorpec, the shoemaker, our neighbour, the trouble I had with him, I can't describe; or rather, truth to tell, it was he who had trouble with me; for every few days I would go and worry the life out of him to get straps for a whip. More often than not I found old Chiorpec rubbing the finest birch-oil into the uppers of boots, making them as soft as cotton wool.
And this good man, seeing that there was no way of getting rid of me, would gently raise my chin with his left hand and with his right would dip the stick into the plateful of birch-oil and would give me a good rubbing round the muzzle, so that all the apprentices in the shop split their sides with laughing. And when I slipped out of his hands, I'd go back to mother's, running all the way, crying and spitting right and left.
"Look, mother, what that devil Chiorpec's done to me
"Lord, it's done as if for the asking," mother said, rejoicing. "I'll thank him, my word I will, when I meet him; for you stick like a burr wherever you go and drive a body out of his wits with your impertinence, idle wretch that you are!"
On hearing this I quietly washed my face round about my mouth and saw to my own troubles. And as soon as I'd forgotten the trick he'd played on me, back I'd run to old Chiorpec for straps, and as soon as he saw me come in, he'd say in high spirits: "Hi! welcome, young pig's chap!" and again he'd give me a good rubbing, making a laughing-stock of me, and again I'd run home, crying, spitting and cursing, and mother had an awful time with me because of that.
"I do wish winter would come, so that I could send you somewhere to school again", mother would say. "I'll ask the teacher to give me back just the skin off your back and the bones from your body."
It was summer time round about the Moşi festival when I slipped out of the house and went, in broad daylight, to uncle Vasile's, father's eldest brother, to steal cherries; for in his garden, and in a couple more places in the village, there stood a cherry tree the fruit of which used to ripen about Whit Sunday. I made very careful plans so as to get the cherries without being caught.
First I brazenly went into my uncle's house and asked if Ion could go swimming with me.
"He's not in," aunt Marioara said. "He's gone with your uncle Vasile, on the road by the Castle, to a fulling mill at Condreni to fetch back some coarse cloth."
By the way, I ought to tell you that in Humuleşti the spinning was done by both girls and boys, women and men; and the village made many rolls of cloth and homespun of grey wool which were sold by the yard or made up into garments, to Armenian merchants who came for the purpose from other towns: Focsani, Bacău, Roman, Tîrgu-Frumos and elsewhere. Our cloth was sold either in the village or at fairs all over the country. The inhabitants of Humuleşti lived chiefly by this. They were landless free peasants and itinerant merchants, trading in cattle, horses, pigs, sheep, cheese, wool, oil, salt, and maize flour; cloth coats—big ones, reaching down to the knees, and short ones—,tight trousers, white cloth trousers, night gowns; carpets, either square with floral designs, or narrow runners; spreads made of local silk with woven patterns, and sundry other things. These they took on Mondays to market or on Thursdays to convents, because the fairs were not easy for the nuns to get to.
"Well then, God be with you, aunt Marioara! And as I was saying, I'm sorry cousin Ion is not in for I'd have loved to have gone swimming with him."
But I said to myself: "I've done it. A good thing they're not in, and if they don't turn up soon, so much the better." And to cut a long story short, I kissed my aunt's hand, took my leave like a dutiful boy, left the house and pretended to go to the bathing-place, but by clever dodging one way and another I found myself in the good woman's cherry tree and started putting cherries into the front of my shirt, ripe or unripe, just as they came to hand. As I was anxiously hurrying on with the job as quickly as I could, I suddenly saw aunt Marioara, with a rod in hand, under the cherry tree!
"You devil, so this is how you go swimming, is it?" she said, her eyes fastened on me. "Come down, you thief, and I'll learn you!"
But how should I climb down when hell and destruction were down below at the foot of the tree? When she saw that I would not budge, two or three clods of earth came whizzing through the air at me but missed. Then she started hoisting herself up the tree saying: "Wait, you swine, you, she'll yet be the death of you, will Marioara, and pretty soon too!" Upon this I swung down on to a branch nearer the ground and all of a sudden I jumped slap into some hemp that was growing beneath the cherry tree; it was still green and waist high. That crazy aunt Marioara rushed after me, and I ran like a hare across the field of hemp with her on my heels to the fence at the bottom of the garden, but I'd no time to get over it, so back I turned, still across the hemp field, still running like a hare, with my aunt on my tracks, back to the cattle yard where again it was difficult to jump out, for there were fences everywhere along both sides and that skinflint of an aunt would not stop chasing me for the life of her! She very nearly laid hands on me! I went on running and she went on chasing, and between us we trod the whole field of hemp flat, and truth to tell, there were about ten or twelve prăjini5 of fine hemp as thick as a brush all ruined! And when we had done that bit of a job, my aunt somehow got tangled up in the hemp or stumbled against something and she went down. I then suddenly switched round like a swivel, took a couple of running jumps and vaulted over the fence without touching it, doubled back to cover my track, went home and was very good for the rest of the day.
But later that evening, along came uncle Vasile with the mayor and the watchman, and calling father to the gate, told him what had happened and summoned him to attend a hearing of the case and pay a fine and damages for the hemp and the cherries, for, if the truth must be told, uncle Vasile was a niggardly fellow and as much a skinflint as aunt Marioara. As the saying goes: they were like the two halves of an apple. It was not much use my saying anything. A man's work is his own concern. The evil was done and he who bore the blame had to pay. It is not the rich but the guilty who pay, says the old saw. And so father paid the fine for me and that was the end of that. And when he came back shamefaced and hurt from that restitution, he gave me the very grandfather of all hidings and said:
"There, take your fill of cherries! From now on, mind you, you've no more credit with me, you rascal! Do you think I'll go on paying much more in damages on your account?"
And that's how it was with the cherries; mother's word, poor dear, had come true full soon: that God will not help him who steals. Yet what good is compunction after death? And my own shame to boot! Just try to face aunt Marioara if you please, uncle Vasile, cousin Ion, or even the boys and girls of the village for that matter, especially on Sundays in church, at the hora6 where it's lovely to stand apart and look on, at bathing places or in Cierul Cucului7, this being a meeting place for young men and women who had been pining for one another throughout the week, while at work.
Believe it or not, I had made such a name for myself by the pranks I had been up to that I could hardly show my face abroad for shame, and this was just at the time when a few pretty girls were growing up in the village and when my heart had begun to flutter somewhat. As who should say:
But what can you do? It too will pass off in time; nothing for it but to grow a thick skin, and let sleeping dogs lie. It's been the same with many another trial that I've been through in life, not just matters of a year of two with a definite beginning and end, but recurrent troubles lasting several years, as one's turn comes round for grinding at the mill. And after all I did look out, in a kind of way, lest I walk into some sort of trap; but a very devil seemed to prompt me and I would stir up trouble in plenty.
Even after the cherry business a new trouble arose. One morning mother woke me up with the greatest difficulty saying:
"Get up, you lazy boy, before the sun rises, or do you want the Armenian cuckoo to poop on you so that everything will go wrong with you all day?" This was mother's way of pulling our legs about a hoopoe that had been nesting for many years in an old hollow lime tree, up the hill by the house of uncle Andrei, father's younger brother; and every day in the summer at daybreak you'd hear it calling: "Poo-poo-poop! Poo-poo-poop!" so that the village reechoed. And as soon as I got up mother promptly sent me off to carry rations into the fields where we had some gipsies hired to tend the maize, right away at Valea Seacă near Topoliţa.
No sooner did I set out with the rations than I heard the hoopoe singing:
"Poo-poo-poop! Poo-poo-poop! Poo-poo-poop!"
Could I stick to my course and leave it alone, I ask you? Not me. I went round by the lime-tree bent on catching that hoopoe, for I was fed up with the thing, not necessarily because of the pooping, as mother said, but because mother would wake me every day before sunrise on account of it. And as soon as I came level with the lime-tree, I left the rations on the path at the top of the hill, climbed quietly into the lime-tree that very nearly soothed you to sleep with the scent of its flowers, slipped my hand into a hole in the tree that I knew of, and what luck! I felt the bird sitting on its eggs and I said to myself delightedly: "Sit still, my pretty, for I've got you at last; a fat lot of pooping you'll do from now on!" And just as I was about to pull the bird out, I don't know how it happened, but I took fright at her fan-like feathery crest, for I hadn't ever seen a hoopoe before, and I let go of her, and back she dropped into the hole. And as I sat there telling myself that there weren't such things as feathered serpents—for I had heard tell that snakes were sometimes found in holes in trees—I took my courage in both hands and again slipped my hand inside to get the bird out, come what might, but she, poor creature, had vanished for fear of me somewhere into the recesses of that hole, and I couldn't find her anywhere. "My word! what an uncanny thing to happen," I said angrily, taking off my fur cap and stuffing it into the hole; I then climbed down again, looked for a slab of stone of the right shape and size, climbed back with it up the lime-tree, took my cap and placed the stone in its stead, thinking that the bird was sure to come out from wherever she was hiding by the time I'd got back from the fields. Then I climbed down again and set out at a good pace to take the victuals to those gipsies. But no matter how fast I walked, time had not stood still while I'd been knocking about goodness knows where, fussing and messing about in that lime-tree to catch the bird; and the gipsies, it goes without saying, had grown wild with hunger, while they were waiting. There's a saying that goes: A gipsy, when hungry, will sing; a gentleman will walk up and down with his hand behind his back, while a peasant will smoke his pipe and smoulder within himself.
So it was with these gipsies of ours; they were singing like mad upon that patch of land, leaning on the handles of their hoes, their sight dizzy with all that scanning of the distance to see whether their food was coming. When lo! about midday, there was I, popping up from behind a hillock, the food stone cold and I in two minds whether to approach them or not, as I listened to them singing so merrily. All of a sudden the dragons were upon me and would have swallowed me whole, if it hand't been for a younger gipsy woman among them who stood up for me:
"Heigh, stop it! Why do you go on at the boy? It's his father you've got a quarrel to pick with, not him!"
Thereupon the gipsies, forgetting me, fell to without another word.
As for myself, having thus saved my face, up with bag and dishes, and back to the village. I walked round by the lime-tree again, put my ear to the hollow and heard something flapping about inside; then I carefully removed the slab, slipped my hand in and fetched the hoopoe out, quite exhausted with so much struggling. As to the eggs, when I tried to lay hands on them, they were all just a squashed mess. After which I went home, tied the bird by the leg with a piece of string and kept it out of mother's way for a day or two, up in the loft, among the discarded wooden tubs; and every now and again up I would go to see the bird, so that the household wondered what I could possibly be doing that often up in the loft.
But the very next day after this, along came aunt Măriuca, wife of uncle Andrei, foaming at the mouth with anger and started quarrelling with mother on account of me:
"Now, did you ever hear such a thing, sister-in-law. Just fancy Ion stealing that hoopoe that has been waking us of a morning for so many years!" my aunt was saying plaintively. She was thoroughly upset and could hardly keep her tears back as she said this. I can see now that my aunt was absolutely right, for the bird had been the village clock. But mother, poor dear, had no inkling of what I had been up to.
"What's this you're saying, sister-in-law? I'd thrash the life out of him if I found out that he had caught the hoopoe to torment it. It's a good thing you've told me; leave it to me and I'll talk to him and worm the truth out of him."
"Don't you have any doubts about that, sister Smaranda", aunt said, "for nothing is safe from that imp of yours. It's no use; I've been told by people who saw him take it that Ion's the one who's got it. I'll bet my life on it!"
I was hiding in the pantry, and as soon as ever I heard what they were saying, up I climbed into the loft, snatched the bird from where it was hidden, jumped down with it under the eaves and made straight for the cattle market to sell it, for it was a Monday and market day. As soon as I reached the fair I began to walk up and down among the crowd, hoopoe in hand, for I wasn't a merchant's son for nothing. Now a foolish old man with a heifer at the end of a bit of rope had nothing better to do than to ask me:
"Are you selling that birdie, sonny?"
"Yes, indeed I am, gaffer."
"And what will you take for it?"
"Whatever you think it's worth!"
"Come, let's have a look at it and see what it weighs!"
No sooner had I handed it to him, than the mean wretch, pretending to feel it for eggs, gently loosened the string round its legs and threw it into the air, saying: "Bad luck, it's slipped out of my hand!" The hoopoe with a whirr of its wings landed on the roof of a booth and, having taken a short rest, flew off to Humuleşti leaving me open-mouthed and in tears, staring after it! I then clutched at the old man's coat to make him pay for the bird.
"What do you think you're up to, nuncle? Making so free with a man's goods? If you didn't feel like buying it, why did you let it go? You won't get away with it, mind you, not even with that heifer of yours. Have you got that straight? This is no joke, you know." And I stared the old man in the face and made such a racket that people crowded around us to see the fun; it was better than a peepshow.
"I say, you are a tough one, my boy!" said the old man after a while, laughing. "Why in Heaven's name are you carrying on like that, sonny? Now wouldn't you like to get my heifer for an Armenian cuckoo? It seems to me you're asking for a damn good hiding, you cheeky brat, and I'll give you one, if that's what you want. I'll lay into you so hard, my young fellow, that you'll thank your lucky stars, when I've done with you!"
"Leave the kid alone, nuncle", said a man from our village; "he's the son of Ştefan, son of Petra, a farmer much respected in our village; and you'll get into trouble with him over this."
"Jolly good luck to him, my good man; do you think I don't know Stefan, son of Petra?" the old man said; I saw him just a moment ago stalking about the fair, with his measuring rod under his arm, looking for cloth in the usual way of business. He ought to be around, or in one of the booths wetting the bargain. Glad to know who you belong to, sonny. Just wait a minute and I'll take you to your father and see whether it was his doing that you came to sell hoopoes and make fools of us at the fair."
All was well that far, but when I heard of father my spirits sank, and so I made my way slowly through the crowd and rushed off to Humuleşti, looking over my shoulder to see whether the old man was after me; for truth to tell, I was now anxious to get rid of him. You know the jest: Leave him alone, man! I'd gladly do so but he won't let go of me now! That's just how it was with me, and, what's more, I was glad to have got off so lightly. "It would be a good thing if I could carry it off half as well with mother and aunt Măriuca," thought I, my heart thumping within my breast like a hare's with fear and weariness. When I got home I found that both father and mother had gone to the fair. My brothers and sisters told me in great terror that there was a fearful to-do with uncle Andrei's wife, and how she'd roused the whole village because of the hoopoe in the lime-tree and how she was saying that we'd taken it, and she had made it very unpleasant for mother. Aunt Măriuca, you know, is one that will worry the life out of any one; she's not easy to get on with like aunt Anghiliţa, wife of uncle Kiriac—and that's a fact.
And as they were anxiously talking, what should we suddenly hear but the hoopoe singing in the lime-tree:
"Poo, poo, poop! Poo-poo-poop! Poo-poo-poop!"
My sister Catrina then said in amazement:
"Listen to that, brother! My word, the way some people accuse a man when he's quite innocent!"
"You are right there, sister mine!" But I thought to myself: "If you only knew what she's been through, poor thing, because of me, and what I've been through because of her, you'd weep for that bird!"
Zahei had left us at it and had gone to the fair to give mother the joyful news about the hoopoe. And the following day it being the Tuesday before the fast of Saint Peter, mother baked an ovenful of cheese cakes and cheese pies, also roasting some tender chickens on the spit and then frying them in butter. About breakfast time she asked aunt Măriuca, uncle Andrei's wife, to come to our house and said to her good-naturedly:
"My goodness, sister, how people may fall out for a mere nothing, by lending an ear to evil tongues! Be seated, sister, and let us rather partake of the good things that God has granted us and drink the health of our husbands in a glass of wine, and
For if a woman were to work herself into a state about every little thing, she'd go stark, staring mad in no time!"
"You're quite right, sister," aunt Măriuca said, shrugging her shoulders quite perplexed, as she was preparing to sit down to the meal. "Did you ever hear of such a thing? That's what comes of believing everything you're told."
Then we all began to eat. I don't know about the others but I do know that I ate enough to last me for the rest of the day.
And as soon as I got up from the table, I said goodbye to the food and made straight for the bathing place; and I dived in boldly from a steep bank into the swirling water and I came the most awful belly-flopper flat on my stomach, and I saw a blaze of sparks in front of me from sheer pain; I thought my belly had burst and no mistake. I scrambled painfully out of the water and sat upon the bank hugging my stomach, and the boys gathered round me and buried me in sand and said prayers for the dead over me as best they knew. It was about an hour before I came to my senses. After that I began to bathe at my leisure till sundown; and, managing to get home with the cows, I told mother that our cows had run loose from the cowherd's enclosure about noon and that I had taken them grazing, on my own, and that's why I was so late. Mother, like a good Christian, always seeing the bright side of things and accepting the explanation I had so favourably presented, praised me for my prowess and, moreover, placed a meal before me. Eating like a wolf, I pretended to be humble and laughed up my sleeve, all the while wondering at the skilful lies I had been telling her; so much so, that I half believed them myself.
That's how a person may often be taken in when he least suspects, if he can't reason things out; but on the other hand: Experience is the mother of wisdom.
One day round about the festival of St. Elijah, mother was up to and over her eyes in work. There was cloth to take out of the looms, another lot to warp and begin weaving, a heap of coats cut out and waiting to be tailored rose up to the ceiling, the wool combs lay in the chest without any one to use them, the wheel stood in the middle of the room, and there was no coarse thread for weft!
And as the saying goes: No sense in waiting, for your luck stands still. What with bobbins to spool, a baby in the cradle and some five or six children waiting to be fed, she had her hands full and no mistake. The work had to be done quickly too, for the fair at Fălticeni was almost on us and that was the real thing, the most important fair of the year.
Mother woke me up earlier than usual and said to me very lovingly:
"Nică, my darling! Your father's gone to cut those oats, for they're shedding their grain upon the ground, and I myself have more than enough to do, so don't go wandering along the roads but stay at home with mother to make spools and rock the baby, and at the Fălticeni fair I'll buy you a hat with a ribbon round it and one of those belts with pockets in them, the sort you've always wanted."
"Right you are mother!" but I alone knew what was in my heart. I may not have been much good, but when it came to sewing and embroidering cloth coats and particularly to spinning I was every bit as good as the older girls; and that's the reason why that wicked Măriuca, daughter of Savucu, whom, by the way, I did not dislike, would often tease and mock me, nicknaming me "Ion Torcălău"8, which was the name of a gipsy from Vînători. In spite of that, she was dear to me, however, and I would spin in her company, in the shade of their walnut tree, and each of us would produce such a mound of thick spun wool that mother would give me a kiss when I showed it to her in the evening, at home.
Thus we boys and girls would call upon one another, taking our work along for the sake of company, which is called in the country şezăitoare9 and it's generally held at night, each one doing his or her own work. So deftly were we spinning that it was a delight to Măriuca and me each trying to outdo the other, and as the spindle was spinning so my heart spun within me for love of her! God is my witness! And I remember that one night at a maize-husking party I caught a mouse in her bosom that would have sent her into fits, poor child, if it hadn't been for me.
And in summertime, who but me should be walking the countryside, on holidays, keeping the girls company across those glorious fields, upon hill-sides, in water meadows and coppices gathering oleaster to make yellow dye, marjoram, honey-balm and common melilot to lay among the clothes? Like the burden of the song:
To put it briefly, wherever there were three people I made a fourth.
But when I heard about rocking the baby I didn't take kindly to the idea at all, though the misfortune of being the eldest had fallen to my lot. But what could you do when it was your mother asking you? That day, however, when she'd asked me, the sky was so blue and it was so warm and lovely out, that you felt like bathing in the dust, like the hens. Seeing such weather I bolted to the pool, though I knew it meant leaving my mother in the lurch, my own dear mother, worried as she was. I must tell the truth, for God above sees all!
After a while, thinking I was somewhere in the orchard, mother came out and began to shout herself hoarse: "Ion! Ion! Ion!" but there was no trace of Ion. Not getting any answer, she left her work undone and followed in my tracks to the waterside where she knew I was in the habit of going; and there I was lying naked in the sand, as big a lout as ever was. Then I stood up holding a sun-baked stone with silver spots in it to each ear and I hopped now on one leg, now on the other, bending my head first to the right, then to the left, saying these words:
Spots of silver, spots of
With that I threw the stones, one by one, into the deep pool in the river where I bathed, one for God and one for the Devil, dividing them equally between them; then I threw a few more to block the devil, foaming at the mouth as he was, at the bottom of the pool, then, splash! In would I dive to catch the devil by the leg, for that was our way of bathing and had been ever since Adam's time. After that I would dive in three more times in succession for the Father, the Son and the Holy Ghost, and a final one for Amen. Then would I gently edge myself up the bank like a great sturgeon and lie by the side of the water, slyly peeping at the water playing round the lovely legs of some girls who were bleaching linen upstream. I don't think there ever was a lovelier sight!
Poor mother her arms folded across her chest as a body will stand when worried, was looking on from behind a heap of gravel, quite close to me. But being so occupied I couldn't see her.
Half an hour must have gone by with mother standing there, three or four more half-hours since I'd left the house and I was beginning to feel the sun right inside my stomach, as they say, for it was past midday. Yet in that state, beguiled by happiness, I was well lost to life and the world.
Mother, though a long-suffering woman, finally lost patience and came gently on tiptoe from behind, as I was contemplating those girls that I've been telling you about; she quietly picked up all my clothes from the bank and left me naked in the water, saying bitterly:
"You'll come home, you tramp, when hunger gets the better of you and then you'll dance to another tune." And away she went.
"Well, well! What are you to do now, Ion!" The girls who were busy bleaching their linen and who had observed this scene, nudged each other in the ribs and giggled at my plight so that the place resounded with laughter. I wished the earth would swallow me and my shame up, and I very nearly drowned myself, I was that upset; and the worship of a while ago had now changed to a desire to strangle them, neither more nor less. But as the saying goes: You can't stop wind or water, and people will talk!
I let the girls laugh themselves silly until their mouths stretched from ear to ear, and biding my time till they were bent double, bleaching the linen, I shot out of the water and took to my heels; and so fast did I run upon the gravel that the stones I touched shot up as high as I was tall. Faster, faster I ran without ever looking back, until I came to the road that led to our house. But I wouldn't turn into the road, being ashamed of meeting people, and instead I jumped into Costache's garden and crawled on all fours through the maize, then I jumped into a lane, from that lane into Trăsnea's garden and again through the maize-stalks, and just as I was coming out of Trăsnea's the dogs scented me and came at me as if they would tear me to pieces. What was to be done? I had heard people say that to stop dogs biting you and to get rid of them, you should crouch down the moment you see them springing upon you, and let them bark as long as they like, lying silent; then they'll bark a while and leave you and go their ways. And that's a fact, for that is how I got rid of Trăsnea's dogs on this occasion when they were after me. It was amazing that I was not caught by that great hulking villain Trăsnea, who had borne me a grudge ever since the time when he had caught me stealing his best apples and summer pears in his garden, for he'd have beaten the life out of me, and that would have been the last straw considering the plight I was in! At last when Trăsnea's dogs gave up, as I've told you, I jumped into a crossroads and thence into our own garden, and then I felt as if I were safe in Abraham's bosom. I walked without a care in the world across the maize patch till I reached the yard, I peeped through the palings and caught a glimpse of mother working with a will, both indoors and out, and my heart bled for her; and it bled, too, for my own belly exhausted with swimming as it was. As the old saw says: I'm sorry enough for you, but sorrow for myself quite breaks my heart. Unable to bear the pangs of hunger any longer I began to whine dejectedly behind the palings: "Mother, I've come home." And all of a sudden I dashed into the yard, stood before mother in my birthday suit, caught hold of her unwilling hand, and kissed it, saying to her, whining all this while: "Mother, you may beat me, kill me, hang me or do whatever you will with me, only give me something to eat for I'm nearly done for!" As they say: Nakedness goes round about; hunger hits the nail on the head. At which she, with a mother's kindness, looked tenderly upon me and said with a sigh:
"A fine thing for such a great, big, idle fellow to walk the country in such a state and leave me right now with no help at all! Come and have something to eat; but, mind, I've had more than enough of you. Maybe if you behave yourself from now on, I might feel towards you as before, but I can't honestly make any promises."
To cut a long story short, seeing that I was in mother's bad books, I swore to her that I'd never behave like that again. Then I was as good as gold to her, never doing or saying anything to upset her, for a kind word will do a great deal. I did the household chores as industriously as could be, I tidied up and cleaned the house as well as any capable girl, so that mother had no need to worry when she went out. And one day she gave me a kiss and said with great tenderness:
"May God grant you happy days, Ionică, my darling, and may He shower upon you His most precious gifts, if you keep on as you've been doing recently!"
All of a sudden I found myself crying for sheer joy. I was more sincerely sorry than I had ever been before. Had mother thrashed me with every paling in the fence, had she driven me out of the house like a stranger, I should not have stood before her as contrite as I was at her gentle words.
And don't you believe that I didn't keep my word. I did—for as long as I could manage—since that was my nature, patient and steadfast in my speech, but, after my own fashion. Nor is this self-praise, my deeds will speak for me: I didn't ask for food when I was asleep; when I was up I didn't wait for others to give it me; and when there was any work to be done, I made myself scarce. And that was not the sum of my accomplishments. If I was treated harshly, that didn't work; if I was treated gently, that worked even less; and when I was left to myself, I made such a fine tangle of things that not even St. Nastasia, who can save you from poison, was able to unravel it for all her skill. As the saying goes: One fool can throw a boulder into a pond and ten wise men cannot get it out.
After all, what's all this talk about? I've had my share in this world like everybody else: a clay figure endowed with eyes, a handful of animated humus from Humuleşti, who's never been handsome in his teens, wise in his twenties, nor rich in his thirties—but poor I have been, as poor as a church mouse, ever since the day I was born!
1As well as ringing bells, a long piece of wood, called toaca, is rhythmically tapped with a mallet before service time, to call the worshippers to church.
2New Year's Day.
3Peasant custom. A group of children going from house to house and offering good wishes for the New Year.
4Romanian: buhai—instrument consisting of a bottomless wooden tub, the upper aperture covered with sheep skin. A strand of horsehair passes through a hole in the middle. When pulled, it makes a noise like the roaring of a bull.
5prajina: old-fashioned Moldavian square measure about six yards by two, i.e. an oblong strip of twelve square yards.
6Romanian country dance, danced in a circle.
7Place-name, a fenced-in grazing-place for horses.
8Could be rendered by "John Spinster" or "Spinster John".