By The Banks Of Vodislava River

It was the month of June, 1821. Tudor Vladimirescu had risen from the darkness of Oltenia's forests; he had carried from Cernetzi all the way to Bucharest the light of his prophetic claims and he had set down like the sun, somewhere between Goleshti and Targovishte, in the blood-stained skyline of betrayal. He had risen in the country's sky like a comet, the fluttering vision of the yataghan, the rustling and the thrill of the great events that are to come into being. Few had loved him, few had understood him, and even fewer had mourned his death. Only later would the sweet mourning song be heard:"Tudor, Tudor, Tudorel,Mother's dear brave lad…"The Hetaerists'[1] only bravery was to capture Tudor and kill him, around midnight, close to the hill where the head of another great martyr of our sad history stays thrust on a stake. Around the middle of May, the Turks entered into our country and as usual they didn't waste any time. On the 7th of June, near Dragashani, they suppressed in blood the Hetaerists' feverishness, and then scattered around the Romanian land, hunting for Greeks and haraci[2] and for whatever bargains they could find."The Turks! They're coming!" This desperate cry had made unborn babies shudder inside their mother's wombs, and sunlight became mournful for many days, in the times of our forefathers. "The Turks are coming!" This piece of news flew like a bird – and it seems that even through the flight of the birds, through the rustle of leaves, through the murmur of the conspiring rivers. The forests of Teleorman rumbled secretly. It could see Tecuci and Calmatzui… they spread the news to the wailing villages. Sparrow hawks rose from the woods in the plains and flew north shrieking. Townsfolk in Roshiorii de Vede received the news one evening. Without any delay, they took out their carts from under their sheds and put in them everything that fear and confusion allowed them to choose, and set off by sunset. But what could you put in your cart, once you had to take your wife and children, your parents or your sisters and brothers? That is why besides this dear burden, the carts contained a chest with some clothes, a blanket or two, a sack of maize and a cast-iron kettle for polenta. Whoever had some money sewed it in their waist belts and tied it to their thighs. If anyone had in the house more things, which were difficult to take away, and didn't want to lose them – they would carry them to the loom, pull it down over their things, and then they would scatter ashes and garbage over the whole thing. But even for this more arms were necessary and some degree of thought. Most of these townsfolk who left their houses used to hide whatever they could in the attics and cellars, and then they went away in their carts, leaving the rest behind at God's mercy.Iordache the furrier was a front-ranker among the townsfolk, a rich man, but a surly, ruthless man, who never laughed and used to beat the hell out of his journeymen. Iordache was the head of the fugitives and when the sun set on Vineyard Hill, he was the first to leave the frightened town. He left at home two journeymen under the strict command to hide as well as they could the rest of his sheepskin coats, or else he would make new ones from their skin if he didn't find them when he came back.They couldn't all take the same road, first of all because there were several roads, and secondly because the escape places were also more than one. Some people were planning to lie low in the faraway forests, in the hidden valleys which they had discovered before. Others were running to hide in the shelters in the villages, in the house of some relative or some godchild. Others, especially merchants, were trying their best to reach the little mountain towns, where they had friends and business relations. Iordache and some others took the road to Piteshti and Curtea de Argesh.They went as far as they could that night and at daybreak they stopped in a forest, where you could hear the dogs barking in the distance. The next day they realized that they were near Balaci. They walked all day and some of the night, they walked the third day, and in the evening of that third day (after they had lost their way and couldn't find it until they had reached the Argesh river), they slowly climbed all the way to Piteshti. There was a lot of turmoil in the town. It was rumored that the Turks were nearby, that they were stealing and killing. People in Piteshti were terrified and afraid of losing their lives and fortunes, and ready to flee town as well. That is why the fleeing people of Rusani didn't stop in the town but for one night, and at dawn they left for Curtea de Argesh, going from forest to forest, fearfully searching the roads and praying and lighting candles in their minds to Saint Filofteia, the miracle maker from the King's Church.And, with the help of their prayers to Saint Filofteia, they reached Curtea de Argesh and went to bow to the saint. They all paid for diptychs for good health, help and salvation from the enemy's sword, and for every mentioned soul on the diptych, they paid a firfirica coin. Everyone, except Iordache, had children, so there were as many coins as children. The stingy sheepskin coat maker was secretly happy that his diptych had only two names, his and his wife's Profira, and it was cheaper than everyone else's."Hey, cousin Iordache, why don't you pay some extra money for the community, your diptych is so much shorter than ours. You can give anything you can spare, a raw silk cloth, some shirt Profira has sewn, or a shirtfront for the priest, to wear in winter…""What are you talking about, old man! You want me to give for a song, the little I could save in my cart? I have given so much for charity; now I have nothing left to give."Curtea de Argesh was the best halting place and if need be, the best place for shelter until the danger was gone. Near the walls of the bishopry and in the fair of the unyoked carts, it was easier for everyone to handle the hostile haraci day.The Turkish habit was well-known. Those who had never been before in the country, and didn't know the language or the roads, rode in bands with lookouts accompanying them. The older sleuthhounds, who could understand the language and knew the paths of the forests, left on the sly, with their horses alone. The former ones went to deserted towns, and the knavish lookouts took everything the poor Christians had hidden away in baskets in their attics, or they even went directly to the hearth covered with ashes and unburied the chests filled with fabrics, the wax or honey pots, and everything else the fleeing housewife couldn't carry with her. The latter searched the paths and the woods, they smelled the wind and followed the trails until they found the rabbit's den. Usually these lonely treasure hunters, who knew the ways of the people, were closer and less fierce, acting like boyars and sometimes like judges. The "boyar" would get off his horse near the carts and ask who the bailiff of the exiles was, and then he would put the hooded mantle on the ground to gather the haraci. If the exiles were many, then the mantle was supposed to get covered with pennies, groats, rubiele[3] and mahmuyies… according to one's cart, hat, and wife, or according to the boyar's opinion. If someone was too poor and had nothing to give, then the bailiff had to pay his share. Eventually, after the boyar took the mantle and spilled its contents into cloth bags, he would ask if anyone had any injustice to report, and he solved the complaints on the spot; then he would mount his horse and go back to the forest, wherever his nose or luck might lead him.It was rumored that a gang of Turks was headed towards Curtea de Argesh, so as to tax the town and whoever was in it. Townsfolk in Rusi, exhausted from fear and the hardship of exile, decided to endure whatever would fall upon them and remain where they were, rather than go into the tangled forests of Curtea de Argesh. Stingy Iordache and two other people from Rusi, along with others from different places, considered that it would be better to lose their traces into the forest, in a desperate attempt to escape the Turks' tax.So, Iordache and these few others sneaked out of Curtea de Argesh and made for Tigveni, went past it and headed for the green and endless night that covered the Siminic valley. The alders and the sycamore maples were as thick as brush and through their trunks the Siminic had barely found room to run its course and curve its ever shadowed waters, hungry for sunlight. Through the thick of the branches and leaves, sunlight was only seen as little stars which twinkled here and there in the grass and in the crystal-clear water. The road was going on the side and constantly wobbling with the network of the Siminic. The seven or eight carts, drawn by oxen, climbed the hill, near the banks of the river, going from one side to the other and leaving deep traces in the moist gravel. Rarely, when the wood was not so thick anymore to the left or to the right, you could see what was beyond the murky water valley. But all you could see was that on both sides there were hills on top of other hills and forests on top of forests, reaching for the sky, carrying the fame of the beech trees and of the spruce.After a long time, the road left the Siminic valley and entered into the sweet light of a clearing. It was almost evening. The glade was round and tilted on a hill completely covered by the armor of the trees, just like a green stone buckle under the breast of the armor. The trees looked as if they were dipped in the evening glow. A shepherd's pipe song covered the entire valley, down to the foot of the hill, eared up with dropwort. The exiles urged their oxen to go forward and a new sight appeared before their eyes.Up, under the beech trees, a flock of sheep was resting, and a shepherd was standing right in the middle. You could have thought that he was conveying through his pipe some story or teaching learnt that day on the field to his sheep. But the beauty of the scene was brief and soon unsettled because the sheep dogs, startled by the unexpected appearance of the strangers, rushed towards them. The shepherd halted his melodious story, put his pipe to his girdle, and grabbing his club with both hands, waited hesitant to see what was about to happen. Maybe there was a certain pastoral wisdom in delaying and not going immediately to calm his dogs. Therefore, the shepherd, being either too wise or not at all wise, let his dogs do their job and if possible try to guess the intentions of these unexpected strangers. In front of the exiles, near his oxen was Iordache; the others were either walking, or going in their carts, some of them closer, others behind. The dogs threw themselves at Iordache with terrible hostility and insistence. People who happened to have at hand a club or a stick ran to his help. The others, frightened, jumped in their carts and started screaming at the shepherd to call back his dogs. Even if Iordache had a staff of his own and with his companions' help, the dogs got him cornered and one of the sheepdogs attacked him from under a cart and grabbed his leg and tore his pants down to his iminei[4]. However, the dog's fangs did not get to Iordache's flesh, but to the belt of his money girdle, which he wore tied around his leg. Through his ripped pants, there was no skin, nor blood, only the brass buttons and his girdle buckles. The men were extremely surprised and also stunned. "Well done, old chap!" All of Iordache's money was on him, tied to his leg, and that is "why he is the head of the refugees and drags us along through this wilderness!" Iordache's rage was fierce and blew away to the sky, like a barrel full of spirit that caught fire.The shepherd, confused by the screams of the people down hill, started going towards them, without being too confident about what he was doing, cursing his dogs more to save appearances. The dogs eventually calmed down, due to their master's calls and because of the clubs, and went back on top of the hill to the sheep, yawning and whining. The shepherd came really close to Iordache. A mountain man, slower and not so fast to speak, he remained completely numbed by the torrent of curses and slapping that befell him out of nowhere, in the middle of the quietest and calmest June evenings. When he fully understood what was happening, he had already received about twenty slaps on the face."Wow, master! What is the matter? Why do you keep slapping me like this?""You shut up, you rotten shepherd! Or else I'll spill your guts right here on the grass!" "Whatever did I do to you, master?""What you did, huh? You let your dogs tear my good pants and you just sit, on top of the hill doing nothing?"Nevertheless, through his ripped pants that he kept on showing, everyone saw the girdle sewn with brass buttons."But, master, thank God that the dog only torn your pants and didn't rip your leg. Why should you beat me like this? I can pay you for your loss. What do you ask of me? A lamb? A sheep?""I don't need your sheep, you goddamned shepherd! I just want to slap you to death!""Master, stop it already! You see this rod: hell's gonna break loose!""What are you talking about, you churl?!" Iordache whistled through his teeth, while his eyes became bloody with rage, "I'll smash your brains out!..."And at the same time, with an amazing strength for a man like him, not too tall, and not too brawny, he pulled the shepherd's rod from his hands. There were so much anger and so many poisonous snakes in this man's eyes, so much destructive cruelty on his face, that the poor shepherd, with all his anger, bent like a poplar tree in a storm in the hands of the mean sheepskin coat maker. Iordache grabbed him by his hair and took him next to his oxen, and with the rod in his other hand released the ox from the right side of the cart, chased him away and yoked the man in its place."Left, shepherd! Go right, Balane! …Left! Go left shepherd…"And the terrible furrier pushed together, with the rod, the ox and the shepherd, forcing them to pull the cart along the clearing for a good while. The exiles were watching the scene terrified. Some of them might have laughed, but what they were witnessing was too cruel; others might have said something to scold him, but who dared say anything in front of such a display of rage?"Whoa, stop, you wretched thing! I'm gonna keep Balan, and the shepherd I'll feed to the wolves or give him to the devil."The furrier unyoked the shepherd and released him with a heavy punch at the back of his head. The shepherd took his hat from the ground, with his face all red and sweated, and sadly returned to his sheep. His rod remained with Iordache as a reminder of the whole thing.The carts headed forward, they climbed another hillside and then went down in a valley. Their journey had been silent and mysterious all day long, but in that sunset, in those unknown places that Iordache had so terribly offended, mystery promised to grow into fear, and silence became threatening. The rustle of the forest had died out at the same time with the shepherd's pipe song, and the friendliness of the places had changed into the pain and shame of the scoffed shepherd. In the valley they had arrived they encountered another river, faster and narrower than the Siminic. One of its banks was tall and had birches on its slope. It was dark and they couldn't find their way anymore; besides, they needed a really intricate road, and some really deep valleys, so as to feel secure and get an hour of sleep, hoping that the pagans wouldn't find them.The river they stumbled upon was the Vodislava; they were east of Suici, in the impenetrable thickets and rambling valleys, where the woods reign undisturbed even today. The caravan stopped near the banks of the Vodislava. The men unyoked their animals, started camping fires and ate – whatever they had left – with heavy hearts and their minds filled with the images of their homes, which might have become dust and ashes. Iordache was more cheerful than anyone. He hadn't beaten anyone in days, and he was feeling like a smoker who had just found his tobacco and pipe after losing them and searching them a whole day.Being really tired, the people soon fell asleep – women and children in the carts, men on the ground near the oxen. Iordache and Profira both went to sleep in their large cart, filled with blankets and sheepskin coats, forgetting all about the others and about danger, as if they were home. "Poor Iordache! I didn't even have a chance to close my eyes. The others were fast asleep. And I was thinking: Man, this Iordache fellow! What a mean character! He's not even afraid of God, he has no shame whatsoever… and I cursed him and dammed him in my mind. God forgive me, I was being sinful… The poor man! It was as if fate had whispered to him: you have only one night left to enjoy life and sleep and the love of your wife!"The stars faded away from their blue depths and yet once again unfolded their meaningless scripture to the earth. The Vodislava river, thoughtless child, told his mountain story and carried upstream rays of light. A great beech tree, which was growing right in the river bed, made the night even darker and deeper over the fugitives.When day broke, a horrible cry rose from the top of this beech tree, and a pair of ravens almost fell in Iordache's cart, crowing and snapping their wings. The fugitives awoke suddenly. The black birds fluttered their wings over their heads and then flew away in the morning sky, as fast as messengers carrying news or as if trying to escape the news they had delivered. Another day of wandering and fear. Another day of bad omens and terrible worry. They were scared of dying, but it was as if they were sick of living too. That is why they were loitering, unbuckled, with messy hair looking at one another, not knowing how to start that day. But when the sun had fully risen from the wood, a Turkish man appeared on the road the fugitives had come on, riding his horse along with one of our men."It's over! All our efforts had been in vain. We'd better stayed in Curtea de Argesh… take a look! The one coming behind the Turk is the shepherd from last night!... Iordache, Iordache, you've got us in some mess!"The Turk came closer without a rush, dismounted and let the rein in the shepherd's hand. He was a stout man, handsome and heavily armed. The poor Christians grew pale and stooped like wheat at the end of May, when there is no rain. Holding his hand on the handle of his yataghan, the Turkish man said shortly:"The tax, people."The exiles started looking in the lining of their clothes, in the maize sack, through the rags in their carts… everyone was now revealing where they had thought reasonable to hide their little money. The Turk was a calculated man. He counted the carts and took them one by one. Whose cart it was, how many persons traveled in that cart, how much the cart and the stuff in it was worth. Iordache's cart was the last one, unfastened right near the river. The Turk agreed with everyone, believing them and even taking less than he had initially asked for. But he was merciless with Iordache. He had a big, beautiful cart, many good things and no children!Iordache, yellow as wax and with his hands shaking, was begging the Turk to receive as much as he was ready to pay. The shepherd, who was holding the reins of the horse, couldn't contain his heart filled with burning shame and spite and vengefulness anymore, and started telling the Turk, among tears:"That's the one boyar, he beat me to death! That's the man who fastened me like a beast and I pulled the cart along with the ox. Don't let him get away, boyar! Make justice for me, boyar!"The crying of the shepherd was wild and shocking, like a torrent of waters running down from a mountain top. The Turk frowned deeply. Iordache understood that there was no haggling over and so he paid the whole tax."The haraci is done with. Now let's make justice. He beat you man?""He hammered me badly, boyar!""He fastened you to his cart?""He fastened me, boyar!""Why you beat him? Why you fastened him?""Because his dogs almost ripped me apart, boyar, and he was standing propped in his rod and just looking! Look what his dogs did to me!""For this you beat him. Good. What about the yoke? Why you put so big shame on him?" "He yoked me, boyar, and he was poking me with my rod. There's my rod over there under the side rail of his horse!""He lying, men?" asked the Turk fiercely, piercing the witnesses with his eyes.Nobody said a word."It was a terrible shame! The beating and the yoke. What you want as reward?""I want his head, boyar! And for your fair judgment I'll give you his money girdle, which he is wearing tied around his leg.""A lot you want, man!""It's not much, boyar! I wanted to give him one of my sheep in exchange for his torn pants, but he wouldn't take it. He said he only wanted to slap me to death. Now I want this head!""You, take off your money girdle."Iordache had tied the girdle underneath his shirt. He took it off as if he had pulled out his own heart, and put it on the beam of the cart. The Turk ordered one of the fugitives to hold his horse, and told the shepherd to tie Iordache with his hands behind his back. And because Profira and the other women started screaming and pulling their hair, the Turk ordered that the women and children be taken away. The Turk turned to the shepherd and showed him the girdle on the beam."Half for my judgment; half for you.""I don't want it boyar, may you have a long life! You take the money and give me his head."The Turk tore open the convict's shirt and pushed him down to his knees with his chest on the beam. Then, in the light of Iordache's last morning, he pulled his yataghan. Holding Iordache's hair with one hand and the yataghan with the other, ready to avenge the shepherd, the Turk revealed that there was a difference between his heart and the blade of his yataghan:"Forgive him; he is of your kind!""I won't forgive him, boyar!""Forgive him; he is of your kind!""I will not forgive him, boyar!""Forgive him, man; he is of your kind!""I won't forgive him, may you live long, boyar!"Then the yataghan, which the Turk had been steadily holding in the sun, fell with a hiss on Iordache's neck, and along with his head dropped to the ground."Hold it, old man!"And the Turkish man threw to the shepherd his wet, spluttering reward. A doctor of theology and priest who coauthored a translation of the Bible, Gala Galaction (1879-1961) was also an active contributor to periodicals, essayist, poet, and prose writer, as well as recipient of many awards. Although Ottoman invasions throughout the Middle Ages are duly seen as a catastrophe, By the Banks of Vodislava River (1911) may be considered an instance of early political correctness, in which the traditional Muslim enemy is embodied in a perfectly human, forgiving character.
[1] Hetaerist = militant of the anti-Ottoman emancipation movement[2] Haraci = yearly tribute paid by the vassal peoples to the Sultan [3] Rubia = small 19th century Turkish gold coin[4] Iminei = fine pointed footwear

by Gala Galaction (1879-1961)