The Grass on the Walls

by Adrian Sângeorzan [USA]
translated from Romanian by: Alina -Olimpia Miron
pentru versiunea română click aici

 

We left at the beginning of winter and in two weeks’ time we arrived there. In full summer. I was nine and I suddenly realized that my own concept of time and space was rather crooked, like a window open towards nothing. My parents didn’t seem to be more enlightened than me. Both father and mother resembled human, topsy-turvy chambers, with broken windows through which a strange draft lashed in. As my sister was much too young, she took everything in as she should have, like an animal set free, an animal fresh out of a dark cage. She would happily play with children from the Ukrainian slum as if she had been born there, in the pampas. From the dune on which we had been deposited, you could see the city in the distance. I could feel its vibration, I could hear its noises and the sirens of the ships transporting the slashed up cattle of the pampas far away and bringing back people like us, survivors of war and famine. We spent the first days at an uncle’s who had been living there for a few years. On the fifth day, all the neighbours gathered together and, by next morning, we had our very own adobe house. We would mix clay and dry grass in some wooden vessel and, when the mixture had dried in the sun, we’d take it out. It looked like a big, rough, unfinished brick, still alive though, which did preserve some of the earth’s breath. The house had two rooms whose windows had been carved properly in the right places. The only thing is they resembled two empty orbits, without any frames, or eyes or glass eyes whatsoever. At night, strange birds would fly through the house as if it wasn’t there at all. When we added the glass, the thunderstruck birds would hit against it on and on in utter bewilderment. At first, we didn’t even have a wooden door, just a piece of cloth preventing the flies from getting in. Father measured me and made a mark on the edge of the door. Let’s see how tall you’ll get here, my boy! We quickly got hold of beds and a table with four chairs (from the ones others had thrown away). We had brought bed linen, pillow cases and tablecloth from our former house. Plus a white piece of cloth we called ‘a wall cloth’ which had been embroidered by my grandmother. The image on it was that of a kitchen in northern Transylvania where a woman wearing a headscarf was stirring a wooden spoon in a pot on the stove. Below it, a caption in Romanian: ‘A good cook keeps a clean house.’ I haven’t spoken my grandparents’ tongue ever since as the people on the dune were Ukrainian and Ruthenians, people who had cheated death in all manner of ways, on one side or the other of the former borders. Around our dune there wasn’t any other border. Just the ocean on one side, the infinite pampas on the other and the city with its huge belly where we would eventually end up as well.
On Sundays, we’d go to the Orthodox Church, also made from adobe. It had real windows. At the entrance we would be welcomed by a crucified Christ made not out of thin zinc plate, but of the thick, steel carcass of an Italian ship which had reached the harbour half-sunken. After mass, the men would get drunk and recount all sort of pre-war stories when Stalin wanted to kill them through starvation, when Stalin had deprived them of their cattle, corn and wouldn’t let them neither plant, nor fish, nor hunt, nor catch birds or locusts, so, some of them ended up eating their dead relatives who were mere skin and bone. God knows how my grandparents perished…but to me they were the well-dressed couple in a framed picture hanging on the adobe wall. Viva Argentina! A country full of food, a country chockfull of cows and tango on the streets, one end of the Earth where no evil could reach us. Mother had also brought along a glass icon of The Virgin Mary who had a big triangular eye above which was God’s window into our souls. Mother always threatened us with that eye, which was always watching us. ‘Really, mother? Even here? At the end of the Earth? Even in Patagonia or Tierra del Fuego?’ ‘Anywhere our feet take us, dear boy! Remember that!’
One night, when the heat and humidity of the Argentine summer had ruthlessly descended upon us, we heard a strange, continuous and soft sound in the house, something like a hesitant whisper which seemed to be omnipresent. I was sleeping together with my father, next to the wall. No matter how much he washed in the evening, he still smelled of blood and beef. He’d work all day in a slaughterhouse and, in the evening, he’d bring home fresh rounds of beef which he hid in his trousers. The second he entered the house, he’d throw them on the grill, feeling more victorious than a Spanish conquistador. I was sleeping in the nude, I had probably removed the blanked during the night, next to the warm adobe wall and, towards morning, I felt something pleasant and soft tickle my back. I was dreaming I was sick, I had high fever and my mother was caressing me with her soft, wide hand. Dawn was breaking when the framed picture of my grandparents’ suddenly fell to the ground in a thud. I sat bolt upright and saw the grass, full, green grass like the one on the field, start to grow on our adobe walls. The icon was this close to falling too, while the white ‘wall cloth’ seemed a ship sail blown by the wind. Through a small hole, right in the chest of the grandmother stirring in the old pot, a daisy had set in. Everybody was sleeping like a log. I sat propped against the wall until mother woke up. I could feel the grass growing under my skin, on my naked back, a strange grass I no longer feared. I thought maybe this was how the dead under the ground felt the roots of nature while waiting for Resurrection. Father didn’t even notice the green field on our walls. He had a quick bite and left, telling us to prepare the embers for the grill by the time he returns. My sister went outside to play and mother and I took a big pair of scissors and began to cut the grass off the walls. Mother cut it every three-four days until it got as thick as a football turf. She used the same scissors to cut my hair, as short as possible so it would grow thicker and, maybe, I would resemble one of my male grandparents who had gone bald in his youth. I hadn’t known either of them. ‘How did my grandparents die?’ I dared ask mother one day. ‘They died of starvation, my boy. That’s how people died in those days.’ ‘And didn’t you eat them?’ Mother turned such a horrified and reproving gaze towards me that I instantly felt like hiding in that grass on the walls. Only the daisy in my grandmother’s chest was left to grow. When plants grow out of walls, they grow upwards, so my grandmother’s chest looked like a flower pot hung on the wall.
In the evening, several neighbours came over. It was Saturday and father had brought enough meat in his trousers and also a demijohn of Mendoza wine. One of the neighbours had a phonograph cylinder and from its cone a new, unusual sort of music had started to flow out. Ever since, tango remained on my mind together with the full grass on the adobe walls, the fat rounds of beef and the image of my mother’s faltering, but happy dance with one of our neighbours, a former gaucho which father simply couldn’t stand. I would receive the biggest piece of meat as I was still growing and I had to become a man as quickly as possible. Father would keep measuring me at the door. Unfortunately, I couldn’t exceed the mark he had made the day we began our new life. I wanted him to be happy, so I’d stand on the tips of my toe, but I still couldn’t pass that damned mark. Though in the first months my dad would raise his shoulders helplessly, after a year of Argentina, he actually began to worry. ‘Look at your sister. Even she’s taller than you…’ ‘Maybe the grass wall and the marked wall will grow…’ I gave it a try.
Otherwise, I was a fine boy. Agile body, sharp-minded, always the first in school, I would dribble the heck out of football, but, no matter how much meat and fish oil I ate, I still wouldn’t or couldn’t grow taller. One Sunday evening, as they were dancing around the phonograph, I hear the former gaucho yell over my mother’s shoulder: ‘Don’t worry, Vasili! That extraordinary medicine that fixes everything is here!’ In a week, father showed up with a small carton box, feeling the most triumphant man on Earth. ‘It cost me a week’s salary, but something has to be done, my boy. People say it works wonders.’ Inside, there was a glass vial and I quickly realized the medicine had to be somehow injected in my buttocks. Three houses from ours, there was a former Ukrainian veterinarian who had smuggled across the ocean a syringe and a few needles. A veterinarian’s syringe which had taken care only of horses and bulls is directly proportional in size to its former patients. The minute I saw it, I wanted to get the hell out. Father blocked my way gently, but firmly and said: ‘my body, you got no choice. You have to grow someday…’ What followed is deeply embedded in my head. I knew there was no way out, so I gave up and promised them I would comply with their desire and lay my butt on the line. The veterinarian took the syringe out of a metallic box, attached a long, thick needle to it and extracted that medicine from the vial. Considering the syringe, the vial was so small, that it looked like an elephant was sucking on a coconut. Then they all turned towards me and said simultaneously ‘take off your pants’. I unbuckled my belt and, just like a convict, I turned towards the adobe wall. Resignedly, I raised my hands, grabbed two tufts of grass and held on to them. Father pulled my pants down to my knees. I clenched my buttocks and felt the needle reach my bone. When he injected that solution, the pain became unbearable and it shot straight down my leg like lightning. I fainted, but I remained attached to the grass tussocks. When I came to, I pulled up my pants and went outside, the vial in my hand, sat under a palm tree until late into the night. I still have that vial. It said: Penicillin, 500 000 units. I thought that, after having been injected with so many units, I would instantly become taller. Two days later, I came down with a fever and the spot where the veterinarian had injected me had become red and highly swollen. The vet thoroughly examined me and announced I had an abscess in my buttock and that it had to be ‘drained’ lest the pus should enter my blood. They waited until father returned from the slaughterhouse and used his sharp-bladed jack knife. In a hollow voice, the vet told me it would hurt a bit and it would be better to take a large gulp of vodka. That was the first time I got drunk, but I can safely say vodka is an efficient anaesthetic. They sterilized the tip of the jack knife in the flame of a cigarette lighter. ‘OK, boy. Now turn to the wall and hold on tight to the grass.’ I barely felt anything and I didn’t even faint. I thought about the cows on the pampas, which the gauchos marked with that red-hot iron and I told myself I can bear this much. I held on tight to the grass which had become thick and strong. After they had drained the pus and the wound closed, I suddenly started to get taller. A centimetre a week. I was almost keeping up with the grass on the walls which mother, as a sign of gratitude, didn’t cut as often as before. Father was the happiest of men. He would tell everyone his investment had been worth it and even threw a big party on the day I hit my forehead on the upper edge door edge.

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