Canutza Wronghead

Once there was a man who whilst in the world could not be in tune with it – a twisted fellow.His mother fancied she would deliver him precisely at Lenten Shrovetide, when a terrible sleet had struck. That year Easter was due in the dead of winter. His father took his cart and rushed off to the village midwife, right at the outskirts. The midwife was sleeping: she had just returned home from the tenant's lands, after a fine spread and a wee of carousing. It took a while for him to wake her up, and a while for her to dress, then get in the cart. The child waited for awhile, and, before even his mother's patience would give way, as she was wailing away terribly, his did. Therefore, he rushed without any circumspection into the world, just as his father's cart bells could be heard distinctly from the stairwell.Within two fortnights, there came the time to pick a Christian's name for him: Radu, Raducanu, Canutza – without a saint's feast to't. After the boy's godfather had thrice recanted Satan in his stead, the village priest took the child in his arms and plunged him into the chrism, firstly: "In the name of the Father!…" the child suffered it; then, again: "… and of the Son!…" whereupon the child howled for the icy water as if he were immersed in fire; and when he was thrust the third time: "…and of the Holy Spirit!…" the suckling freed himself from the holy father's grip as if he were a groundling and slipped to the bottom of the chrism. The priest's hands emerged somewhat lighter from the water, and the godmother went about screaming:"He's drowning, Father, the child is lost!… What in God's name are you doing?"Whereupon the priest quickly rolled up his sleeves and extracted him from the font, as quickly as he could. The little 'un was all deadly pale like an old boor's liver; his whining had stopped. He was merely blinking with half-shut eyes as if he were a doomed toad.They took him by his legs, wheeled him round, jolted him, massaged him, until he regained his breath."Blimey!" says the Father; "many babes have I christened since my ordination… may you keep 'im in good health! But never before have I set eyes on one that was so cross-natured!"Canutza was orphaned of his two parents at just the time when he was of school age… In some respects, it was a blessing: for his learning would prove not to be of much comfort to his kin. The grandmother from his fatherly side brought the boy to town and sent him off to schooling. Canutza learned for awhile, until, with moil and toil, he reached the fourth elementary. One day, the master – a fellow earnest in the highest – arrived in a bad temper. As he entered the room scowling, seating himself at his desk, he made the roll call. Then:"Canutza!""Here, sir!""How many kings have the Provinces?""Quite a lot, sir.""Quite a lot, quite a lot! But: how many?… silly!" "…how many, sir?""Is it you who are asking me? Or is it me who is asking, stupid?""Then let us reckon, sir…""Have you done nothing by yourself, nonce?""I have been learning in Arithmetic, sir.""Go back to your seat, you ass! Next time you reckon them."Canutza went to his seat and started counting, and counting.Next day the master arrived even more transposed in a mood, most fierce."Canutza!""Here, sir.""How many kinds of complex numbers do we have?""Plenty, sir.""How many, you ass?""How many, sir?""You do the answering, you nitwit, you!""Er, then let us proceed in counting them, sir!""Now you are counting! What have you done till now, twit?""I have been counting the kings, sir!""Back to your seat, beast! Count them at your own expense." Anew he went to his seat and went about counting how many of the complex numbers there are. On the third day, the master stormed in rabidly:"Canutza!""Sir!… The complex numbers…""I am not asking you about complex numbers…""…The kings of the Provinces…""Lo – wait till I ask, dimwit… How many rivers doth Europe have?""I am presently in the process of counting them, sir…"And thus, Canutza left. He went to his grandmother and vowed never to set foot in school again, not for the world. The grandmother spurted to the master, and the master said: "My dear old lady, send him off to apprenticeship. Maybe a craft will do him justice, for he's a twisted boy: you ask him ought, and he answers wrong." The woman grieved, but pondered: what do you know? Not everybody is cut out for the studies… let me find him a master; God willing this is where his luck lies. She sent Canutza off to a grocer. The boy served for awhile: at times, better – at times, worse. It chanced that one evening, the grocer laded a large hamper with all kinds of groceries and about twenty bottles of wine. He was to carry them to a customer. There was block frost outside. Canutza squatted and could barely lift the burden on plain ground, in the store. "Will you miss your footing then, boy?" the master asked."Well, master; how would I know?""Will you be able to carry it?""It is heavy…""Come, come! the master huffed. "Is all you know sleeping and eating? You sloth!"Canutza attempted to heave the hamper, but couldn't. To lift his spirits, his master gave him a buffet in the neck; then the grocer and another of his boys lifted the weight and placed it on Canutza's hump. Lickety-split, the boy briefly slugged away, down to the street corner, where the merchants had strewn ashes in front of their stores. But as he sat about to walk on a backstreet to cut his calvary short, a cart just drove past spun with straddling horses, on account of the ice. The boy swiftly went out of their way, and, all at once, thump and thud, Canutza flew sideways and his load, other ways. The boy took such a blow to his elbow that he reckoned he would give up his ghost; nonetheless, he quickly rose to his feet to see what had become of the hamper. The lad clutched it firmly by the handle and gave it a strong tug. Funny thing! Now, the blasted thing was lighter. When he heaved it from the pavement, the bottom started leaking like a riddled watering can: the bottles had cracked up and now the remnants of the wine were sifting through. What to do? He could well not arrive at the customer's door with crocks of glass. Should he flee, then? Whereto, pray thee?… Should he return to the store?…They wouldn't kill him for that now, would they?Kill him they didn't, for the master was not mean a man… Nevertheless…"Where did you take this fall, you wretch?""At the corner o' the backstreet, sir.""Why did you take the backstreet, you rogue? Could you not go on Mogoshoae Road, where it is cleaned and bestrewn? Ay?""To keep off from the roundabouts, sir!""Keep off from the roundabouts?… Too lazy to walk, are we, knave!… Forty francs!… Is yer hide worth the damages?"And on he thwacked and cuffed at him… So much did he do of the thrashing, that poor Canutza could not even bring himself to eat after the shop had closed. He collapsed on the palliasse, clothes on, and slept like a log until next day, as if he had been on a drinking bout.On the following evening the master dispatched him anew with goods to another customer. Now, the hamper was rather light. "You! Come back soon.""I will, master.""Mind you, boy, don't break anything else this time!…"Meanwhile a lady arrived at the store with intent to purchase various necessities for the household."Give me a boy to carry the goods, and the receipt – to pay on arrival.""Which of the little 'uns is hereabouts?" asked the master."None!" says the counter clerk, "all are out and about on errands.""Canutza?""Hasn't come in yet.""May he come down with a plague…"The lady was losing her patience; she ogled her watch:"In this case," she says, "I'll take a carriage, as I am expected to return by lunch; I've guests. Send then a boy tomorrow, or the day after, with the receipt."The master, a shrewd merchant, familiar with madam's 'tomorrows', said in a mellow voice:"However… as you know …there would be this trifling question of the other credit…""What other credit?" says the woman. "Whatever that may be, my husband will deal with't when he looks in.""It's getting a tiny bit old now," says the master even in a sweeter tone. "What can I say! These times are not propitious for us merchants either… I say, madam, better wait for the boy… indeed! Better wait for the boy.""I understand that I deserve not a tidbit of credit from you?""Pray forgive, madam," says the master with honeyed words, rubbing his hands.Then, in a sudden change of tone, as more customers make their appearance, he addresses the counter boy in a harshly voice:"Lad! See to the gentlemen's' needs.""Thank you very much, indeed," says the lady in a supercilious tone as she bangs the door on her way out.Whatever the circumstances, to let a customer off in such a cross disposition, even more so, a lady, does not look well on a merchant. Just as the master was lost in his train of thought wailing over the happenings, lo and behold: Canutza, white as a sheet, makes his entrance:"Where have you been, tramp?" the master bellowed."Popescu Esqu., sir.""Popescu Esqu.?… one hour spent to get you at a stone's throw?""I went through the Mogoshoae Road, master; slippery down the backstreets, slippery.""Through Mogoshoae?… window-shopping while we're still there, ay?…"And slap-smack! a pair of cuffs across his frozen ears. It was certainly merely on account of his twisted nature that these two cuffs seemed to Canutza's mind more painful than the thrashing of the other day. At that time, he had gone to bed without pitying himself for his battered loins and had slept like a babe; now he could not fall asleep for the smarting pain in his ears. He choked his sobs all night into his palliasse, till dawn break.Then, one more minute was left till the globe would spin round the sun for the thirteenth time to the day when young Canutza had spurted out from his mother's womb to bask in its rays. An unbearable unrest made the lad rise from his den. Canutza sighed with his entire being as if he had breathed for the first time; he swiftly wiped his eyes as if he had seen the daylight for the first time. On the wall, a smoked little lamp was smoldering on. All the other boys had sunk in a deep sleep. He put his belongings in a bundle – a mere trifle – and stepped out.It was dawning when, exhausted by the inertness in his limbs and mostly in his soul, frozen from the walk in the cold, he would knock on his grandmother's sill, at her house in the slums. The old woman was awake: she was kindling her icon lamp, praying and crossing herself. "Who's there?""Me, gran."She opened him the door. "As I live and breathe! What is yer business 'ere, before sunrise?""Ran away from my master, I did.""Whatever for?" she frowned, whilst a dark thought crossed her old head."For… I will not stay any longer.""Doth he not feed you?""Ay.""Do you work too much?""Much… but not… a lot.""Doth he beat you up?"The boy nodded and started crying. Scold him, that's what his grandmother would have done, urge him to obedience – for one thing, masters will tan yer hide at times, teach a boy his lesson; for another, a lad must be patient who is in his master's service. What would become of him, he that neither had fancied to take up the books nor stay in his master's employ? Should he become a tramp, or a petty thief, or while away his life on the streets. What can be done about it: he's a big boy now, thirteen years of age now… thirteen years!... then it dawned upon the old woman that – just a wee bit ago, just then, her child's child had just turned that exact tender age. He would be downcast enough and beaten on his birthday by then, whilst other children his age God knows if they get any goodies and fondling. Should she scold him, as well?… And, as she looked at him weep like a fool while he sat on the edge of the chest, bundle in his hands, wiping his eyes off with the cap, even she started sobbing like a feeble-minded one…As the sun went up in the frosty skies of crystal, Canutza was slumbering in his granny's warm cot. Even now, still twisted in his nature he would prove! For a gent without a care in the world would sleep sideways, not curled up; neither of his ears would he find worthy to be his cushion, for those instruments were too tender from the beatings of the bygone day. For this and that, mere trifles, did Canutza wander from master to master. His life may be likened that of a glass that stands gallons and overflows from a droplet. At least one can understand the process in the latter, but Canutza's spirit – could it be fathomed out by any living soul? A glass is visible to the eye; Canutza's inner being lurked in a corner and was, methinks, too small – it would all too soon go o'er the top. Many a thing did he try out in his lifetime, but only made it from hand to mouth. Like any other Romanian he went into politics: always, on the verge of its success, would he leave the opposition, on account of its unfathomable and unjust vehemence, and, on the eve of power change, affiliate with government, which, all things considered, was not such a culprit, after all. And this: again, and again, and again.As he was leading a life rough in any respects, there came the time of wedlock. He married, like the rest of the world. At first he was double-crossed by his mother-in-law, deprived the dowry vowed unto him – whereupon he voiced his discontent, but not all too distinctly. When his wife first cuckolded him – he did not say much. When she cuckolded him twice – he did not say ought. But it happened once, on the Annunciation of our Blessed Virgin, that he outdid himself: spiteful of his poverty, the man purchased a large and big-bellied carp, a rare thing – two pounds and a half full of caviar. That he took home and asked the woman and her mother to stuff it with raisins and pine kernels and nicely bake it in the oven. The women, in their distractions of doing this and that, bustling about and blabbering without cease, forgot to timely take the fish out of the fire. When it was served for dinner – a charcoal mummy. Canutza got his monkey. He left his wife without a word and filed for separation on the very next day, bringing in old proof as new evidence. He would have gone to court in the wink of an eye even then, but for the feast and eating of fish. The courts were closed on that day.The woman was with child… She started crying – what would she do without Canutza. He would not listen. For grief and sorrow, the woman miscarried in her mother's cot and almost died from illness and misery. The mother-in-law came to him: "Canutza, my son, take pity on her! She's yer wife, forgive 'er! The girl's fading away, she's dying! For the love of God! Canutza, son, such commotion for a carp!"Stuff and nonsense! Canutza, a fellow of a manly sort, would only say:"Carp or no carp, it can't be undone, mother! I've set the ball rolling, and that's the end of 't."Finally, the young woman came off with the whole skin, after much agonizing.One morning, whilst he was going about his business, Canutza met his consort: thin, with her jaw in a bandage: she was wandering about listlessly in the Theatre Place like a lunatic. An upper grinder was aching her fiercely. She had been at the dentist's – he was asleep. She had waited for him to awaken; but she couldn't suffer to stand still. The woman had gone out for a walk – while in the waiting room, her fear was she would turn rabid with pain. As they blabbered about this and that – for, otherwise, they were not mad at one another – behold: the dentist's apprentice rushes up and lades her in. The woman sets off in resolve; but, shortly after, she pauses and turns to her man:"Come along, Canutza, will you; I'm petrified."The man follows her. They reach the waiting room. Crushed with pain, the woman flings herself on a stool, swaying her head, deformed and dumbfounded by the affliction."Come in," says the doctor in the doorway.The woman rises to her feet and takes Canutza by the hand, in a cold shiver. They both go behind the doctor. As white as sheet, she lands on the surgery stool. He whistles away as if for himself and stares at a painting with arms folded back. But he grows impatient, aspires to get away… Then – a holler… there we have it!"Ha ha!" says the doctor. "You were well-advised to come. There was an abscess that could have made its way to the eye, and then…""You see, doctor," she said – after a thorough rinse – with the blandest tone one decidedly weary of life could assume, "with the litany of griefs I have been through so far, I am astounded my heart hasn't an abscess!"Canutza ceased whistling. He paid the doctor his fee. Then he went off with his spouse. He treated her to white coffee at Fialcowsky's, for the woman had not put solids in her mouth for three days. Then they both mounted into a carriage: they went home, made their peace and lived together for a good while.So they would have well lived more, if Canutza hadn't happened to die. One day, for a mere trifle, again, a whim – he had asked for a modest loan from a friend who had been seriously in his debt for a long time, which the fellow declined – he flared up so fiercely upon the argument that he felt a choke… a nasty one ….nasty one… by sunset he was gone.The next day they buried him as they do with the rest o' them. Seven years had passed, and the time of that traditional service had come – to take his bones out and wash them clean. The mass was attended by his wife and a handful of kin. When the gravediggers dug up his coffin and cautiously lifted the putrid lid, lo and behold! Instead of lying with his face up, Canutza's skull was upside-down and his shinbones met the rib structure. "This 'un wasn't entirely dead when they put him in!" said the priest. "Fiddlesticks!" the woman answered. "I would have greatly wondered if God had forgiven him, so I would find him quiet in his place… Yer Grace was not acquainted with demised Canutza: a twisted fellow – that he was!" A keen observer of human character revered as the tutelary genius of Romanian humorists and dramatists, Ion Luca Caragiale (1852-1912), like a true son of the Balkans, believed in the evil eye and predestination (although with a grain of salt), a result of which is the story of Canutza, first published in 1897. 

by I. L. Caragiale (1852-1912)