Chira Chiralina

excerpt Two or three years had passed in a very happy atmosphere, the only years of my childhood that stayed with me clearly. I was 11. Chira was 15 and I stayed with her all the time, with a voluptuousness that I was to understand only later. I followed her, like a dog, I hunted her when she took her bath, kissed the clothes wearing her perfume; and the poor child could scarcely protect herself, in a delicate way, thinking of me as of an innocent boy, lacking any trace of passion. Honestly speaking, I had no precise thought, I did not know what I wanted, I was drunk with pleasure and mad about her.I must confess that I was living the hell of love in my mother's house. Everything breathed love around me; the two women with their lovers, their gowns, liquors, perfumes, songs and games. I found voluptuousness and passion even in that ridiculous and dramatic flight of lovers. Only my father's arrival and his kicking our heads against the walls was extremely unpleasant and loveless. Still, we received that as a tribute, a tribute for pleasure. My mother used to say:"Happiness hides misfortune, we pay our dearest life by death. We must live intensely, if only for that. Live, my children, live your life as you like and do not regret a thing when the day comes."Driven in life by our mother's philosophy, you can imagine how easily Chira and me did our best to follow her. With her own fortune administrated by her brothers who were Oriental art objects smugglers, my mother indulged herself in anything her heart desired. She knew how to make herself adored, she changed her lovers as if she changed her dresses and allowed my father to hit her, covering her face only, passing to another entertainment she enjoyed just the next second.Still, my mother was not totally deprived of virtue; when she knew she was covered in sin and feared for us because of her husband's fury, she locked her door until we escaped by the window. Then she opened the door, and she would confront her man with courage, taking the blows on our account, too.When we would come back hours later, we would find her lying on the sofa, her face covered in bread dipped in red wine, to heal the bruises and marks given by her husband's blows. She would get up laughing like a mad woman, holding the mirror in one hand, saying:"He didn't disfigure me too hard, did he? I'll be just my old self in two days... and then, my children, we will invite our guests again! No one died of a beating!"We were worried about her body. It must have looked terrible. She exclaimed:"Oh, but the body is not to be seen!"Once the wounds were healed, the party went on.No one cooked in the house, because my mother felt sick at the smell of fried onion. She paid somebody else to cook for us: soups, different dishes, cakes, cream, all in copper recipients that my mother gave her. A laundry lady would come every Monday to collect our dirty clothes and leave us the clean ones. The only people I saw passing our doorstep were this lady and the Turkish merchant of cosmetics and stockings, besides the guests who were never sure they would get out by the same place they came in. My father and my brother were the only personae non gratae in the house and their visits were indeed quite uncomfortable. My father hadn't slept at home for about two years, but he was in the habit of coming three or four times a month to beat us. The house was peaceful the rest of the time. Free of the household chores, the two women spent their time resting, bathing, dressing, eating, smoking Turkish hookah and receiving lovers. However, they never forgot to pray, but they never went to church and the time they spent with God was short. My mother found her excuse:"God sees only too well I do not argue with him: I remain the same He made me… I am humble while listening to the desires of my heart."Chira interfered:"But, mother, don't you think that the devil has its own contribution?""No, I do not believe that such thing exists. God is almighty. And if we do the things we do, this is because God wants that to happen."And of course my mother was happy with the way God wanted her to be, because He never made her do the things she hated. First, He wanted the mother and her daughter to linger in bed in the morning as long as they liked, and to nibble biscuits with butter and honey along with their milk and coffee. God demanded them to take long baths and oil their bodies with myrrh elixir, to tender their cheeks in milk vapours, boiling on a steady flame, to smooth the hair with almond butter and scent it with moss. Or to polish the nails with the help of a brush dipped in acajou solution. And the pains they took to arrange the eyelashes and eyebrows, lips and cheeks. After all these minute preparations, they went on to lunch, smoking and resting. They woke up in the afternoon, burnt some incenses, drank syrups, and finally started the real deal of the day: the songs, the dancing that lasted until midnight.Mother was much richer than my father. In spite of all the reckless expenses, she would still manage to deposit my share and Chira's every month. This was due to her brothers who invested the money in diverse and maybe obscure businesses, but which make my mother richer every month.I did not know much about my mother's life. I remember her talking about her parents who were the rich owners of a hotel. Her father, a good and pious Turk, was directly charged by the Sultan to set up a hotel in Ibraila by the end of the 18th century. He was to receive all the officials that the Sultan would send to that county. He had three wives: two Greek women and a Romanian. The Romanian was my grandmother. The other two women bore three children and one of them got mad and hanged himself. But my mother and her stepbrother could not get along in their parents' house and they would fight most of the time. I think nothing interesting was going on in that house, besides collecting money and praying to two Gods in three languages.The two sons became smugglers and my mother, still very young, was determined to follow them. The Turk decided immediately to marry her to a harsh man, heartless, my father, that is, who fell in love with her when "God was picking His nose" as my grandmother used to say. My grandfather gave my father a lot of gold and left my mother a great deal out of his fortune, allowing her to administrate it as she wished, provided that she should stay married. Although she was married to a man she hated, she knew how to make herself loved by the Turk; frightened that she might be deprived of her fortune, she played like a kitten, gained his trust and when he died she managed to lay her hands on the money she wanted, leaving her brothers, who adored he, to take care of it. Then she started that lavish life of parties, pleasure and wild love, which unfolded before my eyes every day and which my father could not put a stop to with all his brutal behaviour. My mother would have been more than happy to buy her freedom, but he wanted revenge with all his heart. The day they separated, he collected everything that belonged to him and told my mother, pointing to us:"I leave these two snakes to you. They are not my children, they resemble so much their mother." "Would you like to resemble their father perhaps?" she replied. "You have a dried heart, you're dead and do not let the others live, too. I wonder how you could give life to this poor child here in all that dryness of yours. You two are alike, but he is not my son!"And my poor mother was right saying that this dead man did not let us live. He picked on us even more often than he did before. He knew my mother was very keen on her face and he would not stop punching her right in the meaning of her life; and after those fights, she needed ten days to heal the wounds. No visits and parties during those days. This made her melancholic. She didn't caress us as she used to and for the first time, I saw her crying in despair. Her despair made her want revenge even harder. She needed to make the tyrant more angry. And the plan worked so well that his anger was fatal to us. One night, the house was packed with guests. At least seven of them. My mother hung four chandeliers, not to mention the large one in the middle of the ceiling. I counted the candles: 24. The light was bright.That day, she had a locksmith arrange a strong bolt at the large gate, which could be locked only by the turn of a key. Feeling safe, she indulged in the most lavish joy I ever saw. Even today I believe that she had a bad feeling about the end of her happy life and wanted to enjoy it at full intensity. Three of the seven guests were Greek musicians, famous for their skills. Opening the ball, she presented them with a small leather bag holding 10 golden coins, covered by a silk embroiled handkerchief and said:"My brave soldiers! These bags hold five time the value of your pay for one night of singing! I don't spoil you out of generosity. Joy is an expensive gift in this house and that is why you might leave it by these windows. How are your feet tonight?"And she opened the windows wide facing the precipice. The Greeks leaned over the sash, appreciated the depth, weighted the gold in the bags and gladly said "yes." The party unleashed. The three instruments, the clarinet, the piccolo and the guitar, made divine music in the skillful hands of the Greeks. Chira and mother, laying like odalisques on the sofa, indulged in the sad or tumultuous rhythm of doinas1, sentimental lines of Turkish or Greek songs, accompanied by the claps and voices of the four musicians. After each song, my mother served them coffee and liquors and hookahs. Two large trays with cadaif2 and sarailie3 tempted the eyes of the guests. As I was not on watch that night, I danced with my sister and my mother and then alone until I felt dizzy. Dancing was my greatest passion during my short period of childhood in that house, as well as a way to be madly caressed by my Chira. My Turkish belly dance I displayed that evening was so refined that the three musicians covered me in praises and hugged me sincerely. Chira was extremely delighted. My mother exclaimed:"Well, yes! This is really my boy! No doubt about that!"During a break, while those men were sitting cross-legged on the carpet, smoking their hookahs, Chira asked what had happened with one of her most determined admirers."He sprained his ankle the last time he jumped over the window," one of the guests informed her. Everybody laughed and the guest explained how the poor man was in pains at that moment in his bed, served by a masseur. The story made the guitar player a little concerned, as he was short and chubby. He went to the window, opened it and measured the distance once more. Another guest comforted him, explaining:"It's not too high! Two meters, at most. You make sure not to jump right ahead. Slide easily and try to keep balance when you begin to roll along the steep slope. You will find your hat and guitar at the bottom!" We all began to laugh and went on with the dancing.1934

by Panait Istrati (1884-1935)