White Cigars


by Adrian Ioniţă (USA)

Translation from Romanian by Martin Potter and Mirona Palas

re-write by Robert Fenhagen

pentru versiunea română click aici 


How and why did I come to work for you at the end of your life?

Why you come to visit me after a performance was once food for gossip, but has dieted down to mere wondering?

I truly hope that I gave you periods of happiness, like you gave the world.

Ample is a conservative word to describe your physique, as you sit in the small dressing room.  I keep my opinion to myself, because my place is not to worry about your girth.

A plump parakeet in a rubber cage  darts through my mind as you wait for my response—a bit of puffery, a lot of ritual is you.

Giving me a sidelong glance from under those bushy black eye brows, you play your fingers over the jars and bottles.

Alas, a pianist you are not, as one escapes your touch and falls to the floor, smashing into gooey laden shards.

“See, this can only happen to  you.”

I smiled, humoring the obese man, who pays my salary—you, the tenor of the Gods. The tenor of the goo—that is, perhaps, more like it.

As you leaned forward to listen, the chair upon which you sat squeaked, as any piece of furniture might underneath you.   You are large, and fine furniture, all of which is made of wood, is under considerable stress.

“It reminds me of a conversation, I once had with a musicologist from Tuva  about the obscure vocalization technique of Khoomei, a prehistoric form.”

“Really?”  I smiled at you.

    “I tried to master it, but gave up.”

“You gave up on a challenge—especially one involving vocalization?!”  I spat out without thinking.

    “It is like singing while gargling with goat’s milk! One needs more and different vocal cords then I possess, and they somehow need to be arranged like fish scales in order to obtain the proper undertones.  I imagine it to be a bit like a sitar, and I am not fond of the sitar. “

Fish scales, sitar, I’m confused.

    “For you to understand, try to imagine adding a sound that’s been hidden in a covert pocket of the throat, emitted only when you don’t expect it.”

“Like a belch?”  He ignored me, pointing that wide bearded chin up to the heavens—in this case, the cracked gray ceiling of a tiny room.

    “I asked him how this music called Khoomei was born, and after three fairytales and two more theories about the larynx, the musicologist confessed he did not know. I knew he was lying, and he did not want to tell me the truth. Eventually, after he made me swear I would not give away the secret to anyone, he told me that a shepherd from the Mongolian highlands had become famous for his strange custom of singing. Some kind of bizarre ritual used to be practiced in those times, don’t ask me for whom and why. The fact is that once, while demonstrating his talent with his mouth wide open, a fly was pulled into his open mouth by the sudden intake of air and went down his throat. This is how Khoomei was born.” 

   “I see.” 

“You see nothing!   You are blind.  A blind make-up man.  No wonder I look almost dead!”

    “Was he afraid you’d tell someone how ignorant he was?  Is that why he wouldn’t tell you?”

“Ignorant; I like that.  I’ve had enough time to meditate upon this. Can you believe this? It’s all about vibrations; When you know you’re dying, you start making exercises in imaginative visualizations of the soul, of the body, reincarnation, the Absolute… Observation, darling, self-observation, becomes critical in moments of existential crisis. As long as you are alive, you are not aware of how dormant the condition of the human mind is. Occasional introspections are excursions made by the “living” man in us, who resorts to a generic memory. How do you cross the boundary in such territory? We make death in the furnaces of the imagination! A tunnel, a mysterious river, a threshold: all these are metaphors created by imagination. I am a man that has been working with sounds and vibrations his entire life. I can feel them down to my little toe. However, now that I’m here, at the last moment, I refuse myself the temptation to investigate what’s going on. How odd! I deal with all sorts of rubbish, trying to play the clear-sighted and responsible organizer – notaries, lawyers, the last wish, a heroic and intelligent speech delivered to posterity, narcissistic obsessions about silk embroidery or the quality of the coffin. The make-up, of course… but I’m not worried, because we have known each other for more than thirty years. Yes. A waste of time. We accept death as if it were a season or a periodic process of molting. We lie with legs wide apart in the celebration of life and birth, we make pictures that start with a sperm cell knocking on the door, and in the next minute the first aria bursts forth − yet no one has studied death earnestly. Mozart? Yes, he has, yet how many people understand? If it wasn’t for this magical filter which keeps us sleeping, any note from his Requiem would have killed us. Everyone dies in a different way. The perception and the memory confound with each other in a process. Practically, we don’t die, but we stop living, in other words, we stop perceiving that life goes on. We both know this–why repeat it?” 

   “What do you mean?” I asked in a low voice, because he hates when someone does not understand him. He is self-conscious about his lack of proper schooling. 

“I don’t know exactly − all that I can say is that we dream.  Even I do not need school to tell that. Is this what you wanted to hear?

Would you like me to tell you about the dream I had last evening?  You can pretend to be my therapist instead of my make-up man.”

  “Certainly, it would be a pleasure to be your therapist.”

“I was at a reception in Havana, where I had to give a concert. For a strange reason, everybody seemed to be speaking Tuvanese.


“Compared with other performances, this was different, because no one noticed me.

”That must have been heart-breaking.” 

He dismissed my comment with an imperious wave of his hand– effeminate.  Odd.

“An unusual thing that should have made me suspicious, yet my attention was drawn by Fidel Castro, who approached and began telling me about his cigar collection.”

  “How appropriate; perhaps he talked about the size of his penis, too?”

“Silence!” He snapped.

“Castro took me by the arm to a gigantic glass humidor, where thousands of cigar boxes were stored like books in a library, took a box from a shelf and, with an grand gesture, handed it to me, telling me it is a gift and a tribute. The box had the word Fidellio written on it, and it contained the only white cigars I have ever seen in my life… I wonder what memory created this scene.

White cigars.

 You become fascinated by the surroundings. I mean, I can sit around for days focusing upon this important moment, and, now, when I am finally at death’s door, this dream appears.”

  “You are dying?” 

A pesky fly buzzed by his head.

“Death is not a sudden process, and yes, I did give that concert in Havana. The auditorium of the Opera House was a huge larynx. Heady acoustics made every sound move and transform the architecture of the auditorium into thousands of shapes chained together by a divine energy. An interesting fact is that I felt as at home there as when I was at La Scala. There were no balconies; the audience floated in the air, sitting in boxes you could see through. Everything moved slightly, like a leaf on the water. I was scared even to breathe. The dome was dark, and beyond it a pair of glassy eyes moved– full of curiosity.

The chandeliers were all like mirrors. The orchestra pit seemed abandoned; the musical instruments, like underwater plants, dangled in a warm draught of air. To my surprise, Fidel, wearing a white dressing-gown, on which a larynx was embroidered in golden thread, drew nearer to the conductor’s stand. The audience greeted his entrance with a storm of applause, which made me jealous because no one had noticed my presence.”

A strange noise made us both look simultaneously at the jar of face make-up. The fly had shot up from the jar like a vertically propelled jet, drawing three chalky lines on the mirror. After that, the noise faded and the fly fell back in, weighed down by the creamy goo. 

“It may be from Tuva”, you added, rising from the chair, which decomposed on the floor flooded with diesel. In the metallic colors of its mirror was vibrating the image of a box in an auditorium from which God was blowing  smoke-rings.

An ambulance sounded in the distance.

White Cigars

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