Holidays came. I and Codin had agreed never to show up in the neighborhood together, so as to spare my mother, who knew nothing. But now I could go, unhindered, and sit on the benches in Anghelina's tavern and watch my friend at will; since his unexpected intervention, no one had dared to touch me. This is how, one Sunday evening, I became the witness of one of the roughest brawls the neighborhood had ever seen happen. At about five, the tavern was packed with boozers. Most of them were only carrying on with the carousal they had started the night before; Codin was one of them. A gang of ten was with him, but he was only with Alexe at the table, as usual. The wine was flowing in; the grill was sending away wave after wave of bleaks; two tired gypsies were softly scraping their fiddle and kobsa respectively, also singing from time to time. A new song was popular in town. It fitted both Codin and his beautiful, sullen girlfriend. Alexe sang it, on and on: There's no use having bushy eyebrowsIf you keep them knitted.Better have thinner browsAnd let me enjoy looking at them There's no use going home'Coz I ain't got no pretty wife.No wife and no kids,'Coz I'm a drifting man. Leaning on his horn club, the leather strap around his hand, Codin was listening, drinking and keeping silent, but he felt flattered when his gang would salute him with merry cheers. They were all well-dressed, although their clothes were stained. Their hats tilted back on their heads, or on their foreheads, or to one side, and some held geraniums in their teeth. Many kept their belt knives in view, others hid them under their vests. Nevertheless, the atmosphere was calm. But suddenly, surprise: four coaches, occupied by twelve youngsters, accompanied by three gypsy musicians, turned round the corner of Grivitza Street, and halted in front of the tavern. They got off. Their racket had roused the entire neighborhood. All the women turned up at the gates of their houses. It was there for all to see: the "friends" from Atirnatzi, a neighborhood as famous as Comorofca, had come to settle some accounts with our boys, for some past trouncing that had not been yet avenged. They weren't hiding it. Audacious, brash, provoking, they asked for drinks. As there were no free tables, they were served on stools. This made them see red, and they came to seize a table which happened to be taken by Codin's companions. He coughed quietly and took a defensive posture. Two behemoths, who seemed to be the chieftains of the newcomers, coughed too, because leaders are always very dignified. Meanwhile, the gang was shouting at the gypsies: "Keep playing, lepers! What? You're struck dumb 'coz we took you into the den of these Comorofca scumbags?" Codin kept silent. The eyes of his companions were riveted on him, because he was the first target of the insults. One of them said: "The going gets tough!" The cowards, and those who had nothing to do with it, took leave. Only the two gangs remained, ready for whatever may have come. We, the boys, moved away to make room. Anghelina hastened to gather the glasses and bottles, while the coachmen and the gypsy musicians were just a signal away from flying the coop. The signal, which enhanced Codin's reputation of a righteous man, was given that night in a very unusual manner. Two English sailors, peacefully smoking their pipes, were just walking by, watching curiously to the right and left. God knows what cursed wind had blown them there, for the prostitutes' street, the only street trodden by foreign seamen, was rather far from our neighborhood. Two scoundrels from the Atirnatzi gang separated from their group to challenge the Englishmen. The latter stopped and saluted politely. "Now then, you came down here to show our broads your blacksmiths' mugs!" Not understanding one iota, the sailors looked at each other in amazement. Then Codin stood up, with a majesty that awed me. The noise stopped as if by magic. In a grave-like silence, he thundered at his enemies: "If your packs take on strangers here, in my fief, they'll have to deal…" Before he finished his sentence, the Englishmen were down on the ground, but in the same second, Codin's club fell on the group like a thunderbolt. Before long, nothing could be seen any longer; the coachmen's whips snapped, and the gypsies from both gangs along with the two seamen, guns in hand, took to their heels. In the middle of the road, a mound of human bodies was furiously entangled, engulfed in a cloud of dust raised by the trampling feet. Clubs were crackling, knives were falling from smashed hands; other knives remained menacing, ready to be thrust into hearts or bellies. Disarmed enemies were engaged in a fierce hand-to-hand fight. The mothers and wives of the neighborhood toughs flew to their rescue, striking random blows. But everyone's attention was drawn to the fight between Codin and one of the two leaders from Atirnatzi. The latter was far from the stature of his adversary; however, he succeeded in holding him at bay with a long, dreadful bludgeon ending in an axle nut. The fight was taking place in the manege, and a quarter hour later only the two leaders were still on their feet. The wounded lay on the ground, among hats, clothes, knives and broken clubs. One was still fighting hard: Alexe, the scoundrel, stood up against another scoundrel. Suddenly, he begged for help: "Codin! He's killing me!" Codin jumped to one side, turned and hit Alexe's opponent in the back with his club. The man groaned and fell to the ground, but at the same moment the bludgeon, tipped with the horrific iron nut, struck a ferocious blow from the back right on Codin's head, which was fortunately protected by the thick woolen hat stuck over his ears. For one split second, I thought I would see Codin collapse. His enemy must have thought the same, for he was waiting, hesitating, with his club in the air. But Codin didn't fall; dizzied, he tottered for a moment, then grabbed his club with both hands and began to rotate it above his head, in lightning-speed circles. Thus he pounced on his frightened adversary, who was backing off, also rotating his club. The two clubs smashed into each other. That of the man from Atirnatzi flew off. Codin's broke. While the former turned tail and ran for his life, the latter drew his knife and chased after him. The man from Atirnatzi was running in zigzag, with small, quick steps, to mislead Codin who, with gorilla leaps, was trailing close behind, his knife reaching out to stab him, his deadly breath behind his enemy's nape. I realized that, of all the people watching at the gates, none would come to rescue a man from death, none would help a former jailbird avoid another term. During this murderous chase, the two victims of life had lost their human appearance: Codin, whose nape and right ear were covered with the blood pouring from the hat; the chased one, his face white as wax, his mouth open, whose eyes begged for mercy. And, just as they pass by the sidewalk where I stand, I see Codin stretching out his arm and hitting. A single scream comes out of everyone's chests. A pregnant woman faints… but the knife has only ripped through the vest, all the way down, lining included, and now, with the two torn tails fluttering in the wind, the chased man runs with his last hope, panting and waddling. This time, Codin is not going to slash the vest, but the spinal column. I can already see him in chains, taken to the Palace of Justice between bayonets to be judged by "those gentlemen who are never on familiar terms with nobody." A thought crosses my mind. When the two enraged men approach, I fling myself to the ground at Codin's feet. His heavy boot bumps into my body, and Codin tumbles with his head in the dust, while I scream louder than needed, I scream before being hit. I look at the chased man: he is far away, he is running and looking back without understanding a thing, without believing his eyes, and I am so glad he is so far away. Before vanishing around a corner, he looks back again, still not understanding. The motley crowd swarming in front of the gates, mute with fear, does not seem to grasp what happened either. There was someone who understood, though. We both lay on the ground: I, pressing the rib hit by his boot; Codin, making grueling efforts to take his hat off and seeing that there was no hair underneath, but a round mass of red meat jelly. He started peeling pieces of clotted blood with both hands and throwing them in the dust. Then feeling the back of his head, he looked me straight in the eye. His face, sweated and bloodstained, was that of a drowned man who had been taken out of the water and left ashore, to breathe – his rage had congested and made it unrecognizable. His bloodshot eyes bulged, casting the dim, fixed look of a rabid dog. Barely unclenching his jaws, turned stiff with hate, he said: "Have you seen all?" I answered yes by lowering my eyelids. "Was it my fault?" I shook my head. I couldn't speak for the horrible things I had been seeing around. Three bodies had been lying since the beginning of the fray, and gave no sign of life. Codin picked up his knife and struggled up. We inspected the three lethally wounded: two of them were moribund; the third, in a pool of blood, with his face down, had his eyes closed, and his left cheek rested in the soft dust. Pointing his finger at him, Codin said to me: "This one doesn't need aught no more. The others will follow him before sunset." The dead one was a lad from our neighborhood, Codin's devoted friend; the moribund were from the Atirnatzi gang. We headed for Cuza Boulevard, where Codin wanted to find a coach and go to see a doctor. Walking away from Comorofca, I looked once again at the battlefield. The crowd was gathering fearfully, but there was still no policeman or ambulance around. People are free to kill each other… Codin had recovered when, having heard all the eyewitnesses of the massacre, the official investigators exculpated him. Now I was walking side by side with Codin, in sight of, and known by, everybody: a colt next to an elephant! One morning, it was rumored that cholera, which had been raging in Russia, had penetrated the Danube area up to the town of Reni. Amid growing concern, the authorities remembered, at last, that the neighborhood of Comorofca was a hotbed of contagion, and sent in sanitary agents to drown it in lime and phenol. My mother wanted to send me to the countryside at my uncles', but I refused; Codin captivated me more than the Baldovins. Now my friend beat up his mother every evening, and threw her into the street every night. As it was quite warm, she used to stay there till morning, squatting on a boulder by the gate. In the morning, when he left for the harbor, Codin would find her asleep, kick her once more, and leave her moaning. I was very upset about such cruelty. The explanation they were giving in the neighborhood was that mother Anastasia owned land, and her son beat her to make her sell it. This story was not enough for me, and Codin wouldn't enlighten me either. Appallingly, to the women, even to my mother, these tortures appeared as natural: they had grown accustomed. They would rather be surprised to hear that the brutalized mother had slept in her room a whole week. Most of this pitilessness was rooted in mother Anastasia's savage muteness. Her neighbors claimed they didn't even know what her voice sounded like. Disgustingly tightfisted, close as an oyster and hostile, she always walked in the middle of the road to avoid brushing against other people. Dwarfish, as thin as a ghost, she could be seen squeezing through carts and coaches. Nobody knew where she was going or where she was coming from. Though he often rummaged through her clothes, Codin had never found even as much as to buy a clove of garlic. When she was thrown out, she docilely followed the woman who would take pity on her, put her up for the night and give her a bowl of soup. But the next day, these women would become strangers to her. She always kept her eyes down to pick up rusty nails, rags, shards and empty matchboxes. When someone asked her: "Well, well, Anastasia, why don't you sell some land?" She would reply: "Everyone to his business." Panait Istrati
(1884-1935), the wanderer of Romanian literature also claimed by French literature, confessed that, unlike Martin Eden, he "never sent any manuscript to a publisher or man of letters" until, persuaded by Romain Rolland in 1922, he realized that he was "condemned to write – this is my upside-down heroism." Codin
(Paris, 1926; a movie was made after it in 1963, directed by Henri Colpi) brings to life Istrati's native port town of Braila by the Danube shore, with its cosmopolitan world of Balkan orientalism and adventure.