by Robert Serban [România]
translated from Romanian by Oana-Manuela Mihai [MTTLC student]
pentru versiunea română click aici
For as long as he could remember Sandu Ghiran had worked like a slave, except he wasn’t a slave because he worked for himself alone. He had toiled like a beast since he was a child until now when he had two grown up children. Mariana was married and living in the city. She had made a good match: Ninel, her husband, worked in the traffic control department at the police station, and his bosses liked him because he was a first class mechanic as well as a superb driver They had a one bed-roomed flat, well furnished, a TV, a freezer, and could manage without a car for the time being as Ninel had permission to sign out the unmarked police car he drove at work for his own use once in a while.
Gore, his son, was still living at home with him, and that’s where Sandu wanted him to stay. It was for his son he worked so hard. Sandu had staked his claim to the maximum acreage President Iliescu had allowed the people and cultivated it all. He had planted a vineyard, grown plum, cherry plum, and apple trees, meadows of grass, lucerne grass, and fields of corn, peas, beans, sugar beet, and pumpkins; and made a garden round his cottage. His plots were spread all over the village, on fruitful, God willing, land. Agriculture is a lottery: if it rains and there’s no hail, you’re a rich man. If there’s a frost when the trees are blossoming, then you’re poor. Sandu Ghiran had seen God as both hail and sun, and accepted it: after all He’s all powerful.
Mariana and Gore had helped him, too. Mariana had married young, at seventeen, and Sandu had wanted to give her a dowry but Ninel said he didn’t need one and would take her with just the clothes she stood up in. Sandu gave him a fierce look, narrowing his eyes, and Ninel bowed his head apologetically and blushed, realizing he had spoken tactlessly without thinking. Sandu brought them some blueberry brandy which they drank as they discussed their options and decided on a course of action.
So Mariana took off and Gore was left behind. At barely sixteen he was already taller than his father. Gore had huge hands the size of hams, and was as strong as a horse, cut out for strenuous physical work. He had spent eight years at school and knew all that was necessary, was no fool. Gore laboured unflaggingly. ‘He works for himself!’, Sandu would say whenever his neighbour accused him of working the boy to death. Gore knew that everything, the house and land, would be his one day and never answered his father back. His voice was ice cold, always had been. Their conversations were short, quick and clear cut. Sandu Ghiran didn’t waffle, or just speak for the sake of it and neither did Gore. He knew what he had to accomplish, and how much needed doing, and during the summer they were rushed off their feet.
Under the hill, higher up the road than the fountain, built by a couple in the memory of their child who had been killed in a car accident there, tourists would occasionally pitch tents in summer. Ghiran had three acres of meadow land. Now the grass was waist high and ready to mow, and some people were already in their fields, beginning to harvest it. Rain seemed imminent so they had to get a move on or there would be no fodder for the animals in winter with hay so black and soggy that it couldn’t even be used as bedding in the stables.
In the evening Ghiran took the scythes down from the rafter where he had hung them last year, and hammered their edges on an anvil for nearly an hour. He hit them lightly, carefully with half his strength. As he hammered the blades of the scythes in to shape, his neck veins stood out and he made short gasps. His green eyes had a strange glow in them and blinked to the rhythm of the hand beating the blades. When he had finished he called for Gore who was in the garden watering cabbages. The boy put down his bucket and strode towards his father. ‘Tomorrow we’ll mow the meadow. You find the whetstones and their cases now, before we forget. When you’ve finished the cabbages, water the cucumbers, too’, Sandu told his son.
Next morning they got up at 5 o’clock and put food in a haversack, with an empty corked tin container for water, and a knife wrapped in a cloth, and set off. They walked side by side, the scythes on their shoulders, Sandu’s on his right and Gore’s on his left. It was chilly – if only the whole day could be been like that but by mid-day the sun became so strong they could faint from the heat. The crickets were chirruping from all directions, and they could hear a cart somewhere behind them. Gore looked at his right palm, full of deep lines and with fingers about as long and thick as the cucumbers he’d watered the previous evening.
‘What’s the matter? What are you staring at?’ his father asked, and he gave a start, and quickly closed his fist.
‘Nothing!’ he said avoiding a molehill as they reached the fountain. They noticed a blue tent below them in the valley. Gore took the water container out of the haversack, filled it from the fountain, rammed the cork firmly in, put it in the haversack then checked again that it was securely sealed and heaved the knapsack over his shoulders and hurried to catch up with his father, keeping behind him until they reached the border of their meadow. They were settling in to the day’s tasks.
Gore sprinkled some water in their cases so the whetstones would not dry out, and they tied them round their waists.
‘We’ll start a little further to the left. Let’s go!’ Sandu beckoned.. They walked a few steps up to the place he had indicated, and both spat on their palms as if they were about to start a fight, and began to mow the long grass with abrupt, wide movements. Fifty metres later, the backs of their shirts were soaked in sweat but they toiled on, step by step, like swordsmen lunging in the same direction at the same pace. The hill their meadow was on came to life slowly, as a cart or a man passed by and others appeared on the horizon. A couple of hours later, Sandu Ghiran was way ahead of his son, his eyes fixed on the tip of his scythe, rarely straying from the vision of the blade. Now and then he would spit on his palms, glance at his watch or run his whetstone over the blade. There was a lot of grass, there’d be enough hay left over to sell. The plum trees weren’t a big money spinner but the cherry plum trees were laden with fruit. Cherry plum brandy might not be plum brandy but it was still brandy. Mariana had written to Sandu telling him she was pregnant which was great news. It was three months since he had seen her.
The grass was thick and they still had a long way to go. Sandu stopped and looked back.
‘Come on, Gore, or it’ll be night before we’ve finished. Are you asleep or what? Get on with your work and stop looking for grasshoppers!’ The boy had taken his shirt off and sweat was running down his body. What could he do? He worked as hard as he could but his muscles were young, needed a rest more often than his father’s, not to mention the temperature that was slowly rising.
‘Gore! I’m talking to you!’ his father yelled and the youth put on a spurt without saying a word. His skin was tanned by the sun and the sweat made it gleam. On Sundays he would meet the village boys at the pond and they would fish and swim until the evening. Many of them went there during the week too but their fathers weren’t Sandu Ghiran. Some of them were still at school, others had younger brothers who could help with the chores at home, and some were poor because they had nothing to work for so spent their time at the pond. Gore was like a fish in the water. With his long arms, large hands and healthy lungs he slid through the water like a torpedo.
The sweat sizzled on Gore’s back. He stopped to sharpen the blade with the whetstone, and to catch his breath. His father stopped too. His shirt was dripping wet but he wouldn’t take it off.
‘Gore, bring that water here’. The haversack with the food and water in it was hidden under a swathe of grass as there was no shade to protect it. Gore grabbed the haversack and took it to his father. Sandu wiped his face with a handkerchief that was already wet, put it back in his pocket, took the cork out of the tin container and drank.
‘Eech, it’s hot, God damn it! Go and get fresh water from the fountain ’cause I want to eat’, he said. Gore took the tin container, threw away the remaining water, turned on his heels and made for the fountain, his eyes hurting from the heat. He had thought of going for more water earlier but it was better that his old man had suggested it.
Sandu edged his scythe; the whetstone was hot and the water in the case almost boiling. He moved his right arm, which held the whetstone, slowly, over the curved blade; he was somewhat exhausted himself but wanted to finish mowing the grass by evening. After all
it took a while to dry so he wanted to spread it out before night fall so it could be gathered and stacked, and he had other things to do. There were fields of clover in two places, and he had to cut the cane that grew in the cornfield: there was the garden, as well and soon it would be time to pick the cherry plums. An enormous amount of work but the money wasn’t bad. He must help Mariana now: she would need all sorts of things when the baby was born. And Gore hadn’t had any new clothes in ages. What for, anyway? It’s hot on St Mary’s Day so he doesn’t need them. Later, after the crops are harvested. What’s he doing? Why isn’t he back?
Sandu stopped, his whetstone held high, and looked back to where his son had been. No sign of him! He laid his scythe on the grass and moved towards the haversack. He’d put the food out ready for Gore’s return. He should have been back. After all he said he was hungry. Sandu unfolded the napkin, and put tomatoes, onions, and a tin of paté on it, cut a few slices of salami with his knife and took a bite from a tomato. Where the heck was he? He sat bolt upright and looked down the valley. Not a sign! The fountain wasn’t far away, that little scoundrel!
‘Gore. Hey Gore!’’ he shouted. It was so hot that the air killed any echo. Sandu ate the tomato, wiped his mouth with his handkerchief, shook his head and muttered:
‘Oh, Gore, Gore’. Then he bent over, picked up the knife and put it in the haversack and threw an armful of grass over it.
Sandu hadn’t taken his belt to Gore for a while, had thought he’d grown up and understood he must do what he was told, especially when there was work to be done. This is no good, no good at all. He was standing there like a fool, in the middle of the exposed field with the sun beating down on his head, and Gore…. Little scoundrel! Sandu untied the case with the whetstone in it from his waist, and put it under the grass with the haversack, then started down towards the fountain. He’d lash him all the way back to the meadow. All this time wasted, and Sandu was hungry, and wanted a drink of water, too. He was panting for breath – after all he hadn’t stopped for a second since he started mowing this morning, and Gore… Gore couldn’t care less. Oh but I’ll make him care! Sandu’s rage increased as he strode down in to the valley, and every step seemed to tear his muscles, worn out with work and the sun, apart. He thought of calling to Gore but realized his mouth was so dry that his lips, trembling with rage, were stuck together. The horizon, misty and blurred because of the sun which was now directly overhead, appeared to have sunk a few metres, and was now close to the hill before him. He stopped, sobbing, swore and put his hand in his pocket for his handkerchief, wiped his forehead, crown and the back of his neck, and went on. His feet soldiered on, though swollen and oozing from blisters, and his right temple was throbbing as if an earthworm was trying to escape from beneath the dripping, burnt skin.
Sandu could see the fountain at the foot of the hill – Christ on the cross painted on a brick wall with clear water dribbling through a steel pipe at His feet. Sandu moved on, his eyes searching for Gore. Not a sign! His sunburnt face contorted, now purple with rage. He passed the fountain forgetting his tormenting thirst and went towards the meadow that led to the hill. About a hundred metres ahead was a blue tent. His fist clenched and his eyes dim with anger, Sandu came close to the tent. First he saw one of Gore’s shoes thrown in the grass; then his shirt rolled up with a sleeve sticking out, inside out; then the water container. He stopped, his eyes opening wide all of a sudden as he heard a woman moaning in the tent and, a man gently groaning. Suddenly all the sunshine of the day shone from Sandu’s face, and he grinned from ear to ear, whispering:
‘Eech, lad! Making hay while the sun shines, and no mistake!’