The Contest

 by Gheorghe Rechesan

translated from Romanian by Melissa Silva and Loredana Adriana Malic

pentru versiunea română click aici

 

  We are like roses that have never bothered to

  bloom when we should have bloomed and

  it is as if

  the sun has become disgusted with

  waiting

 [Charles Bukowski, Finish]

 

 

 

The grey winter morning, wet with dew like a moist sponge, rises slowly from the fog. The air trembles under the whip of the cold rain. It’s chilly; a wet and wicked cold which cuts to the bone, while the rain hits horizontally, lashing the stiff faces of the contestants. Uncontrollable shiver runs along my calves and a ball of emotions strives nauseatingly to find its place under my diaphragm. I’m nervous, although I have no reason to be. I’m in great shape. I don’t see why I wouldn’t be. For half a year I subjected my body to the toughest exercises. I climbed abrupt slopes with a backpack full of stones; I pedaled hundreds of kilometers through drought, rain and wind. I submerged myself in tubs filled with ice and I rigorously ate everything that would give normal person indigestion. I am ready for this contest more than any of those present here. I align at the starting line, do a couple of warm-up exercises and peek at the other opponents. I’m not afraid of any of them. They are amateurs or, at best, a handful of mercenaries paid to win a trophy that bears no significance to them.

For us, the people of Fall neighborhood, the Cabbage Holiday is what the Rio Festival is forSambaSchoolsor what the Cherry Blossom Festival is for the weird slant-eyed people inKyoto. Fall slum extends to the Southern border of the metropolis and is a community of shrewd greengrocers who survive by growing cabbage. The green fields of the slum are planted exclusively with this vegetable. Each cottage on the three main streets of the neighborhood is surrounded by cabbage seedlings; housewives place them in pots instead of rose geraniums; when the little imps deflate a soccer ball, they quickly solve their impediment by jumping between the cabbage rows and replacing the ball with a cabbage head.

 

Each year at the beginning of December, in the square in the centre of the neighborhood, ziggurats from hundreds of tons of cabbage are erected, buttresses from casks filled with pickled cabbage appear all around, delimitating the area of each greengrocer family who shares the monopoly over this vegetable. Of course, we eat “vărzări”, pies fermented with sour cabbage; we drink cabbage juice from big-bellied clay pots and all conversation focuses on either an efficient insecticide against the white moth or a new type of Brassica Oleracea with broad leaves.

The climax of the festival, the parade on our Sambodrome, is the contest of pedaling in sour cabbage. I want to assure those that smile disdainfully or raise their brows in surprise that this is serious business. A similar competition takes place, according to my knowledge, only at the Belarusian Btrzetk fair. The single difference is that the lads there compete to make their way to the finish line in a large trough filled to the brim with beetroot borsch!

 

On the day of the contest, the representatives of the Three Street Fraternity bring inside the ziggurat nine huge barrels, about 15 hectoliters each, brimming with sour cabbage, only the local kind, with heads as big as human heads, with sturdy and juicy leaves, not those pretentious little things grown on moist sponges under bulb light or the Pak Choi weeds that shred to pieces when they hit salt. It appears that the soil of our lands, worked on the territory of former slaughterhouses and garbage dumps, rich in organic nutrients and non-degradable plastic waste, works wonders on our cabbage, because we have no other explanation for our plants’ ebullient fruitfulness.

 

Each large cask contains a fixed bicycle skeleton with no wheels;  pinions are connected to a plank cylinder so that, by rotating the pedals, the cylinder puts into motion the hundreds of cabbage heads floating in the sour mush. It is understood that both the sturdiness of leaves as well as the concentration of salt are essential for the solution to be viscous enough to hamper stirring. The winner is deemed: he who manages to pedal as many hours as possible inside the vat. This year, Sunny September Street Team, firmly determined to dethrone the October Red Street Team that had won three years in a row, chose me to represent it. As a true professional, I gladly accepted. Particularly, I have never been a cabbage grower. I had  other dreams in life. I wanted  to become an architect, but the hand of fate is unpredictable: it can sometimes pull you out of trouble, and some other times it can shove you deeper in shit.

 

I jerk and all of my locomotive neurons whir on the command. Start! Not with a toy gun like in athletic competitions, but in traditional fashion, by hitting a metal bucket with a raw cabbage head. The clang invades our ear drums and we stiffly run the twenty meters between us and the cabbage vats. I’m the first to plunge without regret into the thick sour juice. I feel as though a guillotine of ice cuts my body in half and the sour-sulfurous vapors violently sting my nostrils. Most contestants wear neoprene suits, but I dressed in the usual grower clothes: green cotton flannels, home-woven wool vest, tracksuit pants and sneakers made inTaiwan. The only protection that I have against cold and corrosion is a thick layer of pork lard with which I greased my buttocks and my thighs.

 

I fix my soles on the pedals; the mechanism squeaks and puts in motion the pale-colored cabbage heads that splash sinisterly in the brackish juice. I embrace the familiar rhythm of the uniformly-crisp movement and I ignore the October challenger, Sfîrlea called “Trouble,” a beefy maypole with a dull forehead and watery amphibian eyes, who wears a purple suit padded with silicone and who throws at me trite threats through his stained teeth.

 

The first hour passes quickly. I concentrate on the movement of my legs. I hear the others gasping and pedaling with acceleration. The cheers of the fans have died down and I’m alone, just me and the cabbage that needs to be conquered. The first one to give up is old man Victor, from our street. Given his age, he shouldn’t have even participated in the contest. He’s got atherosclerosis, and he turned as purple as an eggplant. I think he had a heart attack. They called the ambulance and rushed him to the hospital, but the competition went on. Maybe the regulations should require an eliminatory medical exam in order to avoid such accidents in the future.

 

To my left pedals, an obese hulk. I don’t know him; he’s been hired by those on October Red to watch after “Trouble.” He’s a lake of sweat. Perspiration flows through his suit and he’s wheezing asthmatically. I don’t think he’ll last more than another hour in the saddle.

 

I maintain my rhythm. It’s important because, if you try to go more slowly, the referees walking among the vats will give you a warning, and when you try to pick up speed, the effort needed to make the cabbage mass stir again takes your breath away and knots up your tendons.

 

I look up at the enormous clock, hung over the tribune. It’s been three hours and 33 minutes since start time. Just as I have predicted, the fat man next to me falls face down in the cabbage barrel. Almost immediately, two more contestants give up, both from the Fruitful November team. Untrained amateurs who came here only to be admired by their children, mistresses and neighbors or to eat cabbage and bacon!

 

The rain falls harder now and turns into sleet. We’re completely wet, drowned to the waist in the sour juice, with our backs whipped by snow flurries. The spectators lessened, only friends and families stayed, calling out our names more and more feebly, shriveled under umbrellas and green plastic raincoats.

 

I remember my last competition. Then, after eight hours of pedaling in the vat, I succumbed to violent cramps that paralyzed my thighs, and for the third year in a row, the trophy coveted by all cabbage growers went to October Red. Today, I must win, not only for the satisfaction of my clan, but in order to prove to myself that I’m not only a real cabbage grower, but also a glorious fighter.

 

We have been pedaling for almost seven hours now. I feel how the hardest moment is coming closer and closer, the minute when the lactic acid accumulated in muscular fibres cuts all your nerve connections. I feel as if my muscles were knots of pain, the cold cuts me to the ribs, but I pedal on because I still possess unsuspected resources, and I’m not going to give up.

 

Only three of us are left, me, Sfîrlea and Gălbete, a guy my age, tall, bony and with an unhealthy stubbornness, specialized in prolonged finishes. If I surpass him, I will win the race. Never mind the other one, he’s high. Referees know that, but they don’t give a damn. However, once the effect of the steroids, amphetamines and monkey hormone cocktail wears off, he’ll fall face forward like a frozen rat in the cabbage juice.

 

I clench my teeth and push the pedals forcefully, as if I were climbing the wall of a precipice. The stab in my ribs is increasingly painful. So as not to feel it any more, I try to think of something pleasant, completely different from the reality in which I struggle. After a while, I manage to imagine a torrid July afternoon.

 

I find myself in a small glade, fallen on my back in the grass, surrounded by the humming of insects, by the breezy murmur of alders and I look at the white, fluffy clouds that float chimerically in the blue sky. A pleasant numbness seizes my limbs; I float together with the clouds, but suddenly a familiar smell, more powerful than the aroma of the grass, the warm earth and the air embalmed in the perfume of wild lilies-of-the-valley, inundates my nostrils. Adriana approaches with the mutedsteps of a gleeful nymph. Her soft lips take over my mouth. I slowly bite her warm, living apricot flesh and a wave of blood boils uncontrollably through my veins. My heart dilates of happiness, I choke, I try to fill my lungs with oxygen, but I am implacably enshrouded in a green and sour haze. My soles slip from the pedals, I see the red numbers of the timer flickering as through a thick fog, I fight it uselessly, I lose my rhythm and fall in the cabbage juice, which swallows me up like a ravenous swamp.

 

I wake up from my fainting fit inside the ambulance. Once again, I have lost the contest. Right this instant, Sfîrlea is probably jumping for joy, waving the “Emerald Cabbage” over his head and kissing his supporters who scream in exaltation. Even though I’m sick, vomiting and I feel a sharp pain in my entire body, I’m not allowed to consider myself defeated and become depressed. Next year I’ll participate again and win. Then, when she hears the news about my victory, maybe Adriana will come back home at last!

 

***

/p

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