libris.ro

The Prank

by Răzvan Petrescu [Romania]

Translation from Romanian by Dorothy McCarthy and Iris Butnariu, MTTLC student

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`Mr. Prosecutor, I am innocent!’
`Sure, they all say that…’
The magistrate sat clasped in his armchair, gnawing his nails, with a blank look on his face. The clerk’s quill was running across the paper. I darted at him and grabbed his arm.
`What are you doing? I haven’t even had a chance to speak yet…’
`I know very well what you’re going to say! You all say the same thing’, growled the clerk, pulling his arm from my grasp. `You hooligan!’
The judge knocked his gavel against the glass plate on his desk a few times, demanding silence. He managed to break it the third time. He now had a star on his desk.
`Things went pretty well at first. I mean, as long as there was just the three of us. Mom, dad and me. I had no choice. I lived on the edge…’
The judge rested his chin on his fist and stared at me, bored. You could see the branches of the trees from across the street through the chancellery window. The sky was breathing heavily – you could barely hear it, and you could see its blue ribs dilating. It finally managed to spit out the blood-coloured orb of the sun. The orb landed right on the city’s hand, and there was morning.
`It’s morning,’ said the judge, yawning. `And where did you say you lived? Show me on the map, if you like.’
Unsure, I pointed at the centre of a planisphere that hung on a wall:
`There…’
`That is Africa,’ said the clerk, who continued writing.
I went on:
`It was a distinct feeling, difficult to describe… Alone on that endless field…’ I stopped, when I realized no one was listening to me. The clerk’s quill creaked continuously. `I probably have to relate what he’s writing there as precisely as possible, don’t I?’
`Do as you wish.’
`OK, but that man is taking notes faster than I talk! He must be at least three phrases ahead of me. Pardon me, but juristically speaking such a method is pretty strange.’
`It doesn’t seem like it to me.’
`OK, if you say so… So, until my brother was born we lived more or less in harmony. The big mistake was that, even from the beginning, no one took him seriously.’
`What did your parents do?’
For an inquisitor he was not at all unpleasant. Furthermore, he had a face that seemed vaguely familiar. Maybe I had met him on the street, I don’t know. Anyway, I had been warned that he doesn’t accept bribes. Everybody made fun of him. He was an honest man. In the morning, when he went to work, people would pull faces behind his back and fall about laughing.
`I asked you what your parents did.’
`Well, my father was a kind man, sometimes a sad one, very rarely a great one, but he was always faithful. He would kneel everywhere and pray, with tears in his eyes, and he would always remember sin, forgiveness, lights, things like that. He didn’t do anything else. Oh yeah, he would sometimes make coloured balloons and run round the field holding them tight. He’d have pranced about like that for hours if my mother hadn’t called him in to dinner. He’d come quickly, all sweaty, letting go of the balloons. He didn’t treat my brother and me badly, but he gave me the feeling that he had no idea we existed. However, mother kept us on a short leash – she always watched us and nagged us to do our homework, which was always to remember how rich and happy we were. She would make us study, and what’s more she would even make us sing this. Never forget that all of this is yours, she used to say! And we had to repeat together: the earth, the mountains, the cattle, the sheep, the goats, the wolves, the waters, the fish, the bees, every blade of grass, every rock. Everything is ours, she would end the speech emotionally, spreading her arms out sideways. She would remain like that for a few minutes, like a cross in the middle of our kitchen.
`A blissful moment of silence fell upon us and we would breathe with relief. Dad would draw his conclusion from the day. It was the same every time – that this everything my mom was talking about so passionately was worth crap.’
`Very colourful. However, try to skip details such as these. We are only interested in facts, psychological evolution. Understand?’
`Yes. Well, as for evolution, the runt started to weave all sorts of intrigues and he didn’t lose any opportunity to turn us against one another. To amuse himself, I suppose. That was the reason I slowly became my parents’ favourite. My brother set them by the ears and…’
`You have said that already.’
`He was a sneak. He was lazy and he was a cripple. And despite this, he was so handsome that he could have made an angel nauseous. That blonde hair… those perfect features… that nose.’
`What was the conflict really about?’
`I understood him, to a certain degree. The poor boy tried to draw attention to himself by any means possible. Making himself ugly, for example! Psychoanalysis is full of such examples. He acted very badly, he painted his face, he pulled out his eyelashes… Just so that someone would love him. A tragic character, if you think about it. But that’s not important.’
`Indeed,’ whispered the prosecutor.
`The years passed, I grew up, while my brother got more handsome and more stupid…’
`Look, we’re in court, not at your mother’s place!’ The judge became angry.
The clerk looked up and asked.
`Should I write this down as well, Mr. Prosecutor?’
`No, erase that. And you sir, guard your tongue! And don’t rely on what he writes or doesn’t write in the protocol.’
They were cornering me.
`In the evening we would stay in the house,’ I continued in an unsure voice… `There, in the middle of nowhere, we would look at each other and listen to the sound of the falling stars, and it was nice. Afterwards we would go to sleep. Mom was the one always giving the signal. She got up, she was tall and her blonde hair seemed like it was flowing over her shoulders. She looked at my dad in a certain way. Poor dad! She was so beautiful that I got sleepy instantly – I was already asleep by the time I got into my bed. However, my brother would always wake me up around midnight, saying: “I saw them, they’re like goats! Meee!” He insisted on telling me in detail everything he had seen through the hole in the wall he had made. He kept babbling and giggling with his weird squeaky laughter. I could barely stay awake and he wouldn’t stop babbling. I could have killed him…’
`So, you are violent. Write that down, clerk!’
`I did, Your Honour,’ said the clerk proudly. He was sitting in his corner, he had stopped writing and was chewing on a cheese sandwich. You could smell it all the way to the stand.
`I also underlined it,’ he added.
`One day mom told us: “Look boys, the time has come for you to start working. Things can’t go on like this, everything is falling apart, with this man around who doesn’t do anything. It isn’t my fault. There weren’t many to choose from. Oh dear… But I didn’t expect him to be such a slacker. Your father doesn’t perform his duties, he has no sense of responsibility whatsoever. He is irresponsible. So, you have to work. My brother immediately started yelling that he was too young, that he was crippled, and besides, why should we work if we’re so rich? With so many birds and mountains? It would be absurd! Still, he didn’t win. And so we had to start working the following day. Being the oldest, it was my duty to establish what we would do. I decided that the runt should take care of the sheep, which is an easier task…’
`Why easier?’
`…and I took the field work on my shoulders. It seemed fair that way. And I haven’t had a moment’s peace ever since. I don’t know if you have any idea what working in the fields means…’
`No.’
`Ploughing, digging, seeding, harvesting…That’s not all – all the chores in the house would fall on me as well. Because my brother couldn’t even knock a nail in without something falling down or him dropping the nail. Time passed, as I’ve told you. Dad was busy with his prayers, mom with the mirror, my little brother with the pasturing and I was left with the hardship…’ The judge turned around, chair and all, and began to draw a sheep on the blackboard.
`Sometimes when I saw him lying on the ground, among the sheep, looking at the sky and singing a sad song through his nose, I would get in a lather. Only it didn’t last long. He was my brother after all.’
`It’s very good, judge,’ said the clerk, referring to the drawing on the blackboard. `Just like a real one!’
`However, he had nothing to do but kill time. And he wasn’t even happy. How can that be, you might say.’
`I wouldn’t say that at all.’
`Moreover, the young man was bored! He couldn’t live without playing all sorts of pranks. He would make our lives miserable with his pranks. The beatings he would get, the poor guy… And still he wouldn’t quit.’
The judge curled up in his chair and looked at me in a disgusted way. He then looked at his watch, mumbled something I couldn’t understand, and looked at me again. Thinking that he probably wouldn’t be able to go to lunch, he pulled a little package out of a drawer in the desk and started eating the sandwich he found there.
`Would you like a tomato, Your Honour?’ the clerk asked.
`If you have one…’
The clerk leaned over his desk and gave him the tomato. The judge took a bite from it and a few drops of juice oozed onto his chin. It made me feel sick.
`Look the other way,’ he advised me while he chewed.
I started looking at the wall. I approached it slowly and I turned the planisphere that was hanging near the window around. On the back there was the enlarged photo of a naked, blonde girl who was lying on a couch in an extremely suggestive position.
`She looks like my mom.’
`Put it back the way it was!’ yelled the judge.
I carefully turned the planisphere around and went back to my place. Maybe this is all part of the procedure, I said to myself.
`I told you to speak louder, I can’t hear you. You’d better come closer.’
`One very beautiful spring, dad finally started showing signs of actually acknowledging us. He had an inspired air. He looked at us as if he had never seen us before, took us to the living-room, invited us to take a seat, sat down himself, and began making an incredibly long speech, to which, I must admit, I was not very attentive. When he finished what he had to say, he rose to his full height – he was nearly two metres tall – and ordered us to take some gifts to the east edge of the field, where the abandoned garden lay, starting the following day. We had to do this every Saturday or else he would beat us. I never managed to understand why he asked us to do this. But the fact remains that he backed it up with the most amazing passion, considering the scenes my mom would make on a daily basis, because of his madness, as she used to call it. So expressive.’
`It wasn’t madness. It was a bribe.’
`No!’
`Bribe, bribe, bribe!’ shouted the judge, waving the gavel everywhere.
`All right, fine, as you say. Anyway, dad calmed down the day we began to do as he wished. He started walking around naked inside the house.’
`One hell of a family!’ broke from the clerk.
He was gravely admonished and asked to keep his comments to himself in the future.
`He was trying to convince us that it was absolutely natural to walk around like that…’
`Nudism. Exhibitionism. Did you write that?’ someone from the panel asked.
`After he gave up wearing clothes, the old man lost no opportunity to tell us that he wanted to emigrate. He seemed to be fixated on that. For a road like this you have to be prepared at any moment, he would whisper mysteriously, pointing at the ceiling. And, as practice in case of an eventual departure, he would prance around naked, turning blue all of a sudden, while his authority attacks were getting more frequent and more acute by the day. He would clatter the pans. He would tear the garage door from its hinges. I had such a hard job putting it back! He would put out the fire in the furnace, throw the cutlery out of the window, and curse my mom. The ending was always apocalyptic. He would turn his chair upside-down, sometimes smashing it to pieces, and he’d go into the bedroom, trying to look like a man whom no one understands, especially as he’d draped himself with the tablecloth. At those times mom would let loose such a cataract of words throughout the house that you could almost see the walls getting wet. At the end, in the midst of all that water, there floated my dad’s shy voice, like a boat made out of paper: “Don’t you understand that we have lost him, maybe forever?” “So what?” my mom would say. “We’re free now. So come to dinner right now!” Then there’d be quiet, and dad would reappear in the living-room wearing some sort of white resignation.’
`Listen, if you keep on babbling stupid metaphors like that, this procedure will become a laughing stock. Where the hell do you think we are, at a literary circle or in a courthouse?’ shouted the prosecutor, slamming his fist on the desk. `Where?’ he shouted again, his face glowing red as he looked round about him in a frightened way.
`Relax, Mr. Prosecutor, we’re in our chancellery,’ whispered the clerk.
`I apologize,’ I humbly interposed. `I do, however, believe that I must tell these kinds of things.’
`Yes, yes…’ said the prosecutor, absently.
`You see, life is made up of details, Your Honour. Not essence. In reality, essence is far away!’
`You’re right! Tell me about your papa.’
`How to say this? I loved him, wacky as he was. He wouldn’t hurt a bee. He was also an amazing storyteller. We would listen to him open-mouthed, despite the fact that he only knew one story. Still, he told it so beautifully, we never got bored of it.’
`And what story exactly would that be?’
`The fairytale with the garden. Well, just at the mention of it, my mom would turn up her nose – she didn’t like other people’s stories. She had her own and plenty of them, the ones about the riches and our immense power.’
`You swore to tell the truth. Why aren’t you telling the truth?’
`My dad described the garden as being the most beautiful place in the world, a place where rainbows, sugar bunnies, unknown flowers, rare birds, glittery trees, fairies, speedy angels, fireflies and toy clouds would all be pampered. When he got to the part about the clouds my dad would sigh.’
`The defendant is asked to return to the subject.’
`Furthermore, a big silvery river crossed the garden from one end to the other and in its waters there floated miracles. Apparently, they floated so slowly that you could pick them up.’
The chairman looked out of the window, dreaming. Ambitious, the clerk quickly did the same. The sunset captured their faces – their faces blunted by so many years spent in dark halls, among miserable convicted people, petrified faces among papers, damp and words. Oh so many words. Mutilated, blind, grey.
`Did someone else die, because there’s a Dead March outside. Beautiful music.’
`Why did you stop? Talk, I’m listening,’ mumbled the prosecutor to me.
`Well, that garden was nothing but a dump, and in the middle there was the dry bed of a river that had drained away a million years ago.’
`Were there snakes?’
`I don’t know. I can’t remember.’
The clerk walked out quietly – he probably had felt shoes. He returned shortly with a stuffed snake in his hands. It was horrible.
`What is that?’ I asked.
`A specimen of cobra capello, the common name for venomous snakes from the naja family. I stuffed it myself… It’s beautiful, isn’t it?’
He put the snake in front of me and with a thundering voice he said again:
`Confess!’
Looking in the snake’s eyes, I stuttered – it intimidated me.
`Yes Mr. Prosecutor, I admit it! I knew what would happen…’
`Aha! Well now, we can all go to lunch.’ The chairman leaned over his desk and said to me in a friendly voice:
`You know, this trick never fails. The one with the snake, I mean.’
I wiped my sweaty palms on my trousers.
`But it’s completely absurd! So much time has passed since then, after all it is prescribed and that is that…’
`You are playing with words and you also accuse your brother, claiming that he was to blame for what happened just because he liked to invent games. You invented them. You, the nice man, who was good at everything, who was without fault and so on and so forth. You good for nothing! Put an exclamation mark there, clerk.’
The clerk started laughing while he was writing and eating his cheese sandwich. I could hardly restrain myself from shoving that goose quill down his throat. Along with his cheese, ruler and protocol.
`Calm down! There’s nothing more you can do. You have confessed. It has been officially recorded.’
`You’ve used hypnosis… I take it all back!’
`Take what back? You can’t take anything back. Where will this take us?’
`To the truth.’
`You do not get to the truth by taking it back,’ said the chairman coldly.
I blew my nose. The chairman leaned his cheek against his hand. His desk lamp drew some sort of white star on his cheek. There was a star similar to this on the glass on his desk.
`Seven hours ago you stated that it was you who decided what chores you would each do. Do you admit it?’
I kept quiet.
`So you had been cleverly planning this well in advance. Let’s end this, shall we?’ The man of the law suddenly looked tired. A sign of this was that he rubbed his eyes. `The motive. Tell me what your motive was and you’re off the hook!’
I took a deep breath.
`It all began the day when it became obvious that the offerings we took to the garden kept disappearing. At first I didn’t give this matter too much attention – it could have been wild animals, but beggars were very unlikely, because around here theft implies selectivity. Only those poor, mangy lambs that the runt brought home would get stolen. Curious, eh? Nobody would come near my offerings – the bread I would make myself that smelled so good it made your mouth water and was as soft as cake. Well they didn’t, they only took the lambs. And God knows where they took them, because I searched everywhere and found no sign of them. Maybe they ate them up. Fleece, horns, hoofs and all. Unfortunately, that was the reason my brother used, to say that the thief could only be me. What’s more, funnily enough, during that time I did get fat. Therefore, I was eating the lambs. I admit, it did make a kind of sense. But I thought it was too much! Although I was the only one who worked day in and day out and I was the one providing for the whole family and…’
`Stick to the facts and stop beating about the bush!’ yelled the judge, slamming his gavel against the glass on his desk. He managed to break it this time too.
`One thing’s for sure, he doesn’t know how to use that gavel,’ I told the clerk.
`It’s not his gavel,’ he answered, gesturing vaguely.
`It turned to dust!’ said the judge, coming to his senses. `A small bell would have been better.’
`Don’t get in a lather. I just wanted you to understand that our lives had become hell. I was the number one suspect, but the truth is that everyone suspected everyone else. The only one who looked relaxed and pleased at how things were going was my brother. He’d found a new, entertaining activity. I wish to be understood correctly, he didn’t give a damn about the truth…’
`How do you explain this phenomenon? I mean the animals’ disappearance…’
Seeing that I was silent, the judge sat back in his chair and started picking his teeth with a match.
`I don’t know. All I know is that I didn’t do it…’
`Obviously. That’s all you care about, you poor idiot!’
`Your Honour, please control how you express yourself…’
`Fine. Clerk, erase the word “idiot”. Replace it with something else – you think of something…’
The clerk looked back through the big pile of papers covered with his tiny writing, and after he had found it and erased it he returned to his work.
`I couldn’t take it any more. So one day I took my brother aside to clarify things. Let’s go to the field, I told him, we’ll go to the garden and stay there as long as you want, a day, a month, a thousand years if we have to, until I can convince you that I have nothing to do with what’s going on. He burst into laughter, he dodged about for a while, but eventually agreed. We left right away. It was a wonderful day. My brother was walking behind me, almost running. He would wipe the sweat from his forehead and prance around foolishly with his short leg. We got there about noon. By then it was very hot out-of-doors. Everything was where it was supposed to be – the two lambs and my bread. We sat down and got out our food. Bees were buzzing, it was such a peaceful day, so…’
`The bees were buzzing!’
`…sweet, you almost didn’t notice the smell of rotten garbage that came from the garden. We settled near a diseased apple tree that provided a bit of shade. We fell asleep right away. I don’t remember what I dreamt. My brother woke up in the evening, and shook me very roughly. “Now what do you have to say for yourself?” he shouted. I looked around, still half asleep, and the lambs were indeed missing. However, the bread was still there, with just a few ants climbing on its golden crust. I looked up at the sky. Threatening dark blue clouds had gathered above us and the heat had become unbearable. My brain felt like a sponge. “You took advantage of the fact that I was sleeping and now you’re pretending to be innocent! Come on, tell me where you hid them, you bastard!” yelled my brother. Shortly after this question it started raining, with big, warm drops. I got up and silently started walking home. I couldn’t understand… I still can’t understand.’
The clerk put his quill in the ink bottle, smacked his lips with satisfaction and gave the papers to the judge. I rose up on the balls of my feet, trying to make something out of that document, and I noticed that most of my statement had been crossed out with red pencil. All that was left were seven paragraphs. After the judge had signed it the clerk retreated backwards towards the exit. Before disappearing through the door he blew me a kiss. I ground out an oath.
`Why do you curse him? It doesn’t mean anything, he’s just a poor employee,’ said the judge.
I didn’t say anything. Exhaustion overwhelmed me. I asked for permission to sit down.
`Of course, please sit down… Look, you’ve kept me here an entire day to give me exactly ninety words.’
It was getting dark. On the chancellery window something was crawling, some sort of snail of darkness leaving long trails of darkness behind it. The judge moved the small yellow lamp that was on the desk close to the file. I got really angry.
`OK, but what has that man been writing there for so many hours? Because he was writing the whole time…’
`You’re such a child! Of course he was writing, but he put a red line through everything that wasn’t important. So, as you can see, there are only seven paragraphs left. Come on boy, why won’t you just tell the truth, in brief and without beating about the bush? I’ve had an earful of so many details I’ve even forgotten who I am…’
`You are the judge.’
`See? You don’t even know who I am. I am the prosecutor.’
Still, after a few seconds he asked quietly:
`Or am I the judge?’
We stared at each other. Without seeing each other very well.
`In fact, it doesn’t really matter who you are. All that matters is that you are objective.’
`My dear boy, it’s obvious that you have no notion of judicial process. First of all, to be objective you have to be indifferent. It is essential! So, indifferent towards what is good and what is bad. Reward or punishment, guilty or not guilty…’
`Doesn’t it make any difference to you?’
`I am old-fashioned. I believe that there’s nothing between the beginning and the end. So it doesn’t make any difference.’
`Then?’
`Then it means that you are guilty. It is actually pretty obvious, you’re already marked, you have a mark right there…’
`All right, but it’s not true! I am not guilty. I have a wife and child… Look, here’s a picture of the three of us! This is my wife.’
`Listen, do you have a witness? You do not. Do you have a lawyer? You do not. Why don’t you have a lawyer?’
`Because I didn’t want anyone to…’
`Well, there you go. There’s no point going on talking… You had better be dignified!’
I felt a void in my stomach. If I’d felt like throwing up again I don’t know how I would have controlled myself. I would have died of shame.
`Please Your Honour, Mr. Chairman, Mr. Prosecutor… I swear on the Bible that I am innocent!’
`There’s no need to. You have no Bibles here,’ said the grumpy judge.
`Then I swear on my father’s head! On my child’s head, on the clerk’s head, on any head that you want. I am a serious man, it’s a shame you don’t want to look at this picture… You have to hear me out…’
`You know, this is really boring. Oh well, go ahead, if you have to. Still I warn you, it’s useless. And hurry up. We’re running out of time.’
I instinctively looked around. Maybe there was still time to run away.
`Try it! I am not your guard,’ said the judge. The cheek that was lit by the lamp seemed curly, as if the man was silently laughing. It had become cold in the courtroom.
I walked to the blackboard, erased the sheep drawn by the judge and started drawing, illustrating my story.
`The rain had soaked us to the bones. We were going home, which was difficult through all that mud. The storm had unleashed itself, whirling around some sort of soot. There was lightning non stop. (I made a jag on the table.) With water dripping down his face, my brother was yelling like a maniac. He seemed to be completely out of his mind. (With a few lines I drew a man with wings.) However I felt too despondent to pay any attention to him. After a short while I spotted my plough, which I had left on the field two days ago. I headed towards it. “Where are you going?” shouted my brother. (I drew a cross.) I shoved him hard and he fell in the mud. “It’s you who’s to blame!” he yelled, shaking all over. He stopped almost immediately, as if he wanted to cough, but then after a few seconds he began again. “We’re cursed forever because of you… You stole dad’s curse! You stole it, you stole it!” screamed my brother, pounding his fists into the marsh. I leaned over the plough. It had grown rusty. Near it lay the tools I had tried to fix it with. (I wrote many numbers and letters on the blackboard belonging to an ancient script, a question mark and a hammer.) I was sitting on my knees in a puddle. I was overwhelmed. I don’t know how long I stayed like that.’
The janitor came in. Although she was old, thin and wearing a dirty overall, she looked very much like the girl whose picture was behind the planisphere. She swept up the papers on the floor, picked up the papers on my desk, dusted the crucifix with a few sloppy moves and went out.
`At some point I thought I heard footsteps behind me, a light splash behind me. And all of a sudden there was that strong, wild laughter of my brother. I turned around at the last minute and slammed the hammer into his forehead. (I drew a figure lying on the ground and pointed at it with the chalk.) He went down like a sack, lifeless. Only then did I see that he was holding a toy sheet-metal star in his hand.’
I was looking out of the window, as if I felt that I would see the scene happening all over again in the darkness.
`Defendant, please rise!’
I rose with difficulty, my hands and feet were numb from the cold.
`You have been found guilty of first-degree murder. The sentence will be carried out…’
The rest of the words got lost in an incomprehensible whisper. The judge had stepped down from the cone of light and I could not see him at all any more.
`Hic et nunc!’ I could barely hear a voice.
`Your Honour, where are you?’
I was groping in the dark, with my hands in front of me, heading for the dim light of the lamp. I could hear a rapid, muffled giggle coming from the window. At a certain point I thought I also heard a giggle somewhere on the right. I tripped but I managed to prop myself up against the desk. My fingers involuntarily clutched the judge’s gavel. Suddenly, his figure appeared right in front of me.
`Now do you recognize me?’ he asked.
`You!’ I shouted, taking a step backward. Then I felt movement behind me as if someone was preparing to jump me. I turned around and blindly started hitting with the gavel. There was a clogged noise followed by a loud one, like a chair falling over. Then there was nothing.
The lamp also fell, breaking as it hit the floor, which now seemed to be covered with raindrops. I leaned over Abel. He lay on his back lifeless, with a bloody forehead. Damn, I thought, now this will never end.

(From the volume Eclipse, Editura Cartea Românească, 1993)

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