A Feast At The Monastery

excerpt In the end, after much talky talk, the priest managed to completely lay the guilt on Father Mitrofan from the monastery, who was now to be held accountable and punished. And since there was nothing there to eat, the priest's wife being sick, priest Bolindache managed to turn the archpriest's attention to the monastery, which was not very far away, and where they would appear just in time for lunch. Lord, do those monks have a nice little pond behind the yard, and the fish borsch or the peppers in brine they will make, you'll never forget them. To atone for his sins, Father Bolindache, suddenly well again, as if the archpriest's touch had miraculously cured him, put his white mare to the cart. Her name was Liza and she was one beautiful animal, famous all around, and he worshipped her like he did icons. He kept her locked up as if she were his virgin daughter, sealed with seven locks and guarded fiercely. And as he was fastening her harness he told His Holiness how thieves had tried to steal her from him on several occasions. Last week it was that they broke into the stables. A guard has been sleeping by her side in the hay ever since. The mare was indeed wonderful. Her head was gentle and nervous, her eyes big, smart and fiery, her nose slender with fluttering nostrils, her withers bent like a majestic cord, her chest sticking powerfully out, her stomach flat, her fetlocks thin as tissue, and her hooves tiny and always fidgeting. On starting off, her body seemed to elongate and then fall back into shape like that of a hound. It was a pleasure watching her from the perch, as the play of her narrow back and harmonious hips would indicate not forced gallop, but dancing almost…"Gee-up, Liza," the priest spurred her on lovingly. "There's always thieves after her but I won't give in to them, even if I have to put her to bed in my room," Bolindache confessed to the archpriest. "They can't get anywhere near her during the day: we've had seven children thus far, which means fourteen eyes and fourteen other ears, if you leave out mine." "You shouldn't mess with criminals, you know…" the old man said in a protective tone. "Don't go away alone, like you do now. Why didn't you take one of your boys with you?""Well, God willing, we're going to be back home by sunset. We'll have something to eat (my wife has enough time to cook by then), go to bed, and tomorrow we'll be wherever you order us to go at whatever time Your Holiness desires.""Wherever? At father Gheorghe's then…""You mean father Gheorghe from Sculeni? Piece of cake! One and a half hours and we're there." And he said to himself: "I'll lay it on priest Gheorghe just like that sinner of a priest Vlad laid it on me," and he cursed his unfaithful colleague. "Let him deal with the archpriest as best he can; and this old fart should learn never to bother people again on such short notice…"After driving around the side of a grove, they went on down a vale and turned right on a country road garnished left and right with blooming brier, hops and stems of pretty-by-night. Strategically surrounded by vine-covered hillocks, taking refuge in a sea of green, was the monastery in the background: a white shrine, the church, around which the cells seemed to dance. Another unexpected hurdle: the heavy gate, for which much oak wood had been shelled, was locked. The priest knocked with the end of his whip, the archpriest slammed his staff harder into the wood, they shouted, they hoyed, they threw stones, but no response. Like it was a cemetery. The priest gave up the thought of getting his white mare and his red clerical hat through the main gate. He drove down by the monastery's pulley block, which could have fitted a citadel, until he reached the back lane where the hay, wood and wine barrels from the cellar were brought in. The only hindrance here was a grate of thin shag, which could be moved aside with just one finger. And there they were in the middle of the yard. They were immediately met by a priest on guard who, in his patched bolero and monk's cap trying to hide a wild shock of hair, stumbled furiously towards them as if to eat them alive. Luckily, his hands were occupied by a full demijohn each, while a third was balanced on his head. "What are you doing here, you damn thieves!…"The archpriest feared he was done for and shielded himself with his staff. The priest hid behind his mare. Just then abbot Iosafat appeared at the mouth of the cellar under the xenodochium. On seeing the archpriest, he ran before him, hugged him and kissed him joyfully on his forehead, beard and shoulders in the shape of a cross. He was merry and smelled of good wine. At this sight, out came the priest from behind his mare only to get lip-crossed in similar fashion. "Come on upstairs," the host said, taking them almost in his arms. "Father will go. I can't," the priest said, looking all around the yard. "But why?""I'm not leaving my mare alone, they'll steal it. I'm not going anywhere until I find a place to lock her up or someone to guard her.""I'll arrange it for you."The abbot ordered the priest on guard not to budge from the animal's side, or he would pay dearly. With that done, they climbed the steps into the xenodochium. "Have you had any lunch yet?""No, we're ravenous," the archpriest opened his mouth like a fish thrown onto dry land.The abbot clapped."They'll just bring a snack or two. Forgive us, we are not well prepared," he apologised. "We haven't had any lunch either. We've been racking the wines in the cellar for three days now; it's May and the cursed things are seething (I don't know what your trying to say). So we went on working and forgot about the things of the flesh.""Did you hold Mass today?" the archpriest asked rather concerned. "Down there in the cellar," the abbot answered with heavenly innocence, "for the Lord does not keep to one place, he is everywhere.""So how did you go about it?""We said a few prayers and crossed ourselves most devoutly!""Among the barrels?""Those barrels are holding the sweet blood of Our Lord within them," he explained. The dazed archpriest remained silent… especially since those snacks were arriving. He swallowed his astonishment together with a few pieces of pressed cheese. There followed boiled eggs in slices, smoked ham, slices of salted and smoked kid's meat, chunks of cheese, lumps of butter, a goat sausage with spices and "Rose" sausages… all of these drenched in plum-brandy obtained from the orchards of the holy monastery. As his hunger melted away, so did the spite that the archpriest had gathered in his soul, spite that seemed to have been augmented by famine. "Why don't we all go down in the cellar until the actual meal is ready? We still have a cask of ruby-coloured wine to rack. All the other fathers and brothers are there, let's not leave the poor people alone…"The guests agreed gladly. They took along the remainder of their victuals and found their cheerful way down the throat of the cellar. With their frock laps around their waists and their sleeves rolled up, other monks were stumbling from one barrel to another, carrying all manner of tubs, pots and pails under the oil-lamp light. A strong odour of wine was dispersed like a dizzy vapour in the narrow and mouldy air. It got you by the nose and stifled you right from the door, pervading your brain.The archpriest stopped all choked-up. "Don't hold back," father Iosafat encouraged him. "It's only difficult in the beginning. Then you get used to it and you like it." This is exactly how it was. The archpriest got used to it immediately, as if his mother had released him right there, among the hogsheads. He began to stumble around as well, slightly fuddled. "What is this, father abbot? I understand that your holinesses have been working three days now. But I haven't even had ten brandies…""It's the depth and the sultry air," the host explained. "You're not drunk and you shouldn't think we are. It is the vapours of this drink, which we have breathed in, that make us dizzy. They are a hundred times stronger than the wine one pours in one's stomach. We'll come around before you can say Our Father, as soon as we get out to some fresh air and some fat food. You won't think it's the same people."Suddenly at ease, the archpriest gave himself over to the giddy vapours and the abbot's protection, who ordered some fat food and made a very pleasant feast down there under the ground, sampling the food from above. Thus, while standing, they tasted: pork sarmale[1] with sauerkraut (which, because the monks keep it in plugged up barrels, doesn't even spoil in July); pork fillet taken right out of the brine and fried on the grill; sausages tender as dew; and a great polenta, neither too soft nor too thick, as if the Holy Virgin herself had made it. The wine was drunk out of clay mugs. At noon, they went out above to the sunny ground all cheerful, and sat themselves down to eat the actual meal, which was laid out in the big refectory. "At last, we can eat properly now," the abbot sighed. They sat down: the archpriest at one end of the table, the abbot at the other and monks on the sides. The priest on guard, who had been called with the bell so as not to disobey his order, took the mare before one of the windows to the dining hall for her master to see, enabling all the holy fathers to guard and protect her as one. The mare stuck her smart head through the window and neighed, as though she was cooing to her master. She got a nosebag with oats around her head, too, so as to satisfy her cravings. They had just finished thanking the Lord for their victuals and were about to sit down when they counted themselves and were terrified to see that they were thirteen: Judas's number. "We can't proceed like this. We must find the fourteenth," the abbot decided.But where could they find him? They ran around the room desperately racking their brains. "Let's take Our Saviour's icon off the wall and put it on a chair with a plate before it, like at the Wedding at Cana," brother Minodor suggested at last. He was a rosy-cheeked sister boy and the abbot's favorite."Shut up, you stupid woman!" the abbot rebuked him. "At the time of the wedding at Cana, Jesus was alive and well and walked among the living. Now he is our God and he will strike us." Lowering his long and flattering eye-lashes, the sister boy retorted: "Then I will not eat, but get behind Your Holiness's back and serve you.""You'll get behind me at the right time and the right place," abbot Iosafat smiled at him at peace with himself. "Now you will sit beside me and sing to me. You're not a protosinghel[2] for nothing. Don't worry, we'll find someone else to complete our number."Suddenly, the priest on guard, who had to stare out the window all the time for the seeing of the mare, and who wouldn't have touched the food, jumped up, as if pricked by a thought: "What if we brought the mare inside? She's one of God's souls, as well. We'll put her at the head of the table, for her to have more room and us less trouble. We'll stick the oats nosebag around her head and a tub of water on the table.""A horse – they say it's as good as seven people," the abbot added support. "So we're going to surpass Judas's number by far." And so was this clever solution to their great dilemma accepted with shouts of joy. The food started coming. Soup with meatballs, sarmale, fillet and roasted pork chops, griddle pork on roasted cabbage and French fries, small fried meatballs and meat croquettes as wide as the palm of your hand, sizzling sausages, which projected drops of pure fat when you prodded them with a fork. All of these were joined with five types of great wine being served from deep crystal glasses. As brother Minodor tended to prefer womanly wines that were sweet and savory, the abbot, his master, who looked after him with fatherly care and enlightened him many a time with a word or story, advised him towards the manly and sturdy wines; wines that had some brawn in them. At the high point of the feast, the mare, which had eaten a little too much, began to eject the food by her other end with much scurrilous and foul-smelling noise. "An animal's an animal!" the priest on guard said in disgust and hurried to move the nosebag from nose to tail. It was in vain. The mare had other nasty necessities, as well. She shamelessly spread her back legs and gave way to water of a smell that would have summoned the most convinced drunk back to his senses. The puddle reached the legs of the holy fathers, who were forced to put their soles up on the table's perch. "Let's turn her out again," ordered the abbot. "She can do what she wants by the window."So they tethered her by the window, which Liza used to stick her head through and smile at the prank she had played on the monks. "Now I want the fourteenth plate right here beside me."Shuffling his way through the sinner's water, abbot Iosafat resumed his seat at the head of the table. As he had ordered, he received one bowl to his right and another to his left, each with its own spoon, fork, knife and glass. "I," he explained to the brothers, "eat for two at least, and that makes fourteen, as there's twelve of you. But this time I will try my best to eat for three."With a spoon in his right hand and another in his left, he sampled the ciorba[3] and took both spoons to his mouth at the same time, as if there were two people sipping, not one. Similarly, the two forks in his hands helped him to wolf down two pieces of roast and two cucumber rolls at the same time, rolls that broke against his teeth and were crunched away like sweetmeats. When he took a glass in each hand and clinked with himself, there was the holiest of silences. Everyone was watching with astonishment and envy at how skillfully he would take them to his mouth and tilt them over concomitantly, jerking his head backwards slightly and not letting as much as a drop go to waste. The meal continued until late in the evening, and there was chattering, anecdotes and stories, songs of the world and of the church. And it would have gone on, if it hadn't been for the mare. Worrying about her brought priest Bolindache and the priest on guard to their senses, the latter having been entrusted with her care. And it was in the priest's best interests to make a swift return to the feast the others carried on with. 1952
[1] Force-meat rolls in cabbage or wine leaves (Rom.) (tr. n.)[2] a rank inferior to an archimandrite (Rom.) (tr. n.)[3] mixed soup, with sour cream (tr. n.)

by Vasile Voiculescu (1884-1963)