Little Fingers

excerpts The wind is chilly and it is as though it has a taste, a taste of mulberries. The boat passes by a white poplar. Over the water hang scattered streaks of haze, whelps of mist. The boat leaves behind it a row of dwarf willows. What a bluish-black night, like ink! The boat advances against the darkened backdrop of colorless grasses and bushes. Ah, how agile is his little wooden boat! Not even the current opposes it. It is so tranquil, but much can be heard on the banks, sounds that not every ear can detect: a faint whistle, rustling, a flutter, more fluttering, cracking brushwood. Andryusha deciphers them one by one. A lapwing, a muskrat, a pair of bald coots, a pig. The lake air fills his chest; it percolates fresh and sweet into his belly, into his arms and thighs. It is as though he is breathing with his entire body, he becomes lighter, very light, he too takes flight above the Katsavaya channel of the Danube Delta, along with the gossamers. Later, he is in the boat once again, he is crossing an expanse of reeds, he is standing and thrusting with his pole into the muddy water's bottom, the Morning Star is right before his eyes, and he cries, "Kak sebye, krasavitsa!? Lyubimaya!" And, as he drinks all in one gulp from a bottle of vodka, a bottle which has come into his hands he knows not how, he feels how that wondrous star draws the longboat through the marshes, giving it the power to advance how and whither it wishes. He has reached the mouth of a small lake, not at all deep: it is a pond just right for catching crabs in springtime. Before him lies a pound net, one alone, one of his new pound nets. He recognizes it immediately by the knife notch made on the horn wood rings and by the knots of the line. He hastens to raise it and to empty it in the boat, but, as soon as he touches it, he feels it shaking. The net resists; heavy, taut, it is about to slip through his fingers. He is panting, his head is wet, soaking wet; it is as though raindrops stream through the pores of his skin and through the roots of his hair. He looks for the bottle to take a few more slugs of vodka, but it has vanished without trace. He looks up at the Morning Star, but he no longer finds it in the heavens, in its place has appeared the worried face of his grandma Lyuba. "Babushka! Babushka!" The wind has now acquired the taste of mulberry tarts. Andryusha is sure that he has caught a large fish. He spits and starts to sing softly, with trembling voice, "Oy, Moroz, Moroz". Grasped with care, the net obeys him little by little, it tightens, rises, the wooden rings draw closer, the creature beneath the water is struggling with all its might, it could be a huge, rebellious pike, or an old sheatfish, longer than his older sister Verochka. The pound net suddenly vanishes from in front of his eyes and in his hand he is holding the purse net. He has succeeded, the fish is caught, but what he finds there is not a fish, it is maybe an otter, an otter that entered the net after small fry, but nor is it an otter, it is something whitish, inert, it is not a living creature because it is not struggling, it is a thing or a collection of things, the weight is breaking his arms. He now sees well, clearly, that what has been caught in his net is a host of human bones, only the skulls, of which there are five or six. Andryusha sings no more, he has been struck dumb, his silence is short, then he screams, screams shrilly, and the one who wakes up in the hotel corridor, on the second floor, private Andrey Butylkin, on guard in front of room 211, is bathed in sweat, it is as though someone had drenched him with a garden hose. He looks around him bewildered. The corridor is empty. A neon light drones uninterruptedly. On the window of the fire hose cabinet someone has stuck a piece of chewing gum. A few moths are trying to enter by the window on his right, the one with the view toward the mountains. He wipes his brow with the sleeve of his tunic, lifts himself up from the grimy carpet. He is numb; his back is hurting him somewhere below the ribs. He lights a cigarette. From behind the door, from within the room of the person he is supposed to be guarding, footfalls can be heard. The key turns in the lock, the handle is pressed down, and the figure of military prosecutor Spiru appears: two bleary eyes, sharp cheekbones and a broad mouth, above a pair of brown pajamas, with the lapel button torn off. Private Butylkin hears, "What? What? What's happened?" He answers that he was dreaming, hears a curse, makes no answer, and sees the door slamming in his face. He looks at his watch. It is twenty to three in the morning! God! Where did the time go? It won't be long before the last man on duty turns up. He paces up and down the long, dimly lit corridor, once, twice, eight, fourteen, twenty-six turns, then who knows how many, he has lost count, the walking does him good, the twinge in his back has gone, and the image of the net no longer frightens him. He has seen plenty of human bones lately and he will see them again the next day and the day after that, and so on, when they will be taken to that blasted mass grave yet again, an entire platoon of gendarmes. In the end, it is good like that: that's not labor, with a trowel instead of a shovel, with little plastic bags instead of sacks and wheelbarrows, with all kinds of rest breaks, when the prosecutors start quarrelling or when the coroner gets another bright idea or when the chief of police shows up, that puffball as red as a boiled crab. Oho, and how good the walls, the ruins, are! You can slip into town straight away, to get some booze, cigarettes, or a loaf of bread. You can sneak off to the edge of the woods and have a quick nap, or at least stretch out in the grass, in the shade, after the lieutenant puts on his spectacles and starts reading the papers. Rather than drill and alerts at the barracks, rather than weeks on guard duty, six hours at your post, six awake, six asleep or, even worse, six on, six off and nothing in between, without any sleep, when who knows what's going on, it is better for him to put up with Spiru. He's maimed, he's a spook, he's a bastard, he shouts, he waves his arms about like someone possessed, his eyes bulge out, at ten o'clock at night you have to stand guard at his door, he's convinced their commandant, of the gendarmes, that he's in danger and needs a guard. You never escape without polishing the magistrate-colonel's shoes or without brushing his uniform. You curse him in your mind, and after that you get over it. It's worth getting over it at least for that little old man who keeps walking among them and jotting things down in a blue notebook, but not anything bad, as they believed at first, because the lieutenant didn't punish anyone for talking to him, that little old man who every single day manages to rile the prosecutors, especially Spiru, that little old man, the political prisoner, the one who gives cigarettes to anyone who asks and who once, on the Day of the Dead, at the twelve o'clock call, with the lieutenant present, laid an entire crate of wine in front of the platoon. Butylkin leans his elbows on the windowsill. Somewhere high up, far away, a light gleams. He has heard that there is a cabana up there. He has sworn that he will never go there. He can't stand these mountains, any mountains. What was with the star in his dream? It was the Morning Star, which transformed into his grandma Lyuba. "Babushka! Babushka!" He would have eaten five trays of mulberry tarts on the spot. The young Stanca, a maid with a small and rather threadbare dowry, because she was orphaned by her father and had five brothers, otherwise with locks as yellow as honey reaching her waist, good at the ring dance, quick to smile and with sweetly gazing eyes, had remained pregnant after a week-long love affair with a gendarme, who had come to her hill village one winter following a murder in the wine cellar of the manor. The foetus did not want to be flushed out of her belly, neither with boiled keg wine, nor with burdock juice, nor with crushed gooseberries in pumpkin tea. And so, shortly before Easter, she fled to Buzau and thence, by cart, on foot, however it happed, to Braila, where she knew that a sister of her father lived, whom she had never seen in her life. She did not find her. Instead, she was found freezing, starving, dirty and frightened, like a stray dog, by the Turks who were guarding a grain silo. She had made herself a nest at the peak of a mound of wheat, a few dozen feet in height, and was incessantly nibbling the hard, golden grains from the palm of her hand. And sometimes Allah is good, not like our Lord God, although He too can be good when it is a question of saving a wronged being, who, in just three or four days, after a few hot baths and human meals, is transformed into a pretty and hard-working lass, smiling and obedient. They chased her away some time later, when her belly had become large and irksome. A warm, mild autumn had come, so she was able to survive in the marshes, among the stagnant waters and rushes, learning how a wild cow can be milked if its calf is tethered to a willow or a poplar, how crayfish are drawn to the bank if they can smell carrion, how an old catfish can be caught in an eddy using a crucian carp as big as her palm, how to distinguish edible from poisonous mushrooms by the silver cross at her throat. She was in her seventh month and had no appetite for anything that did not lie beneath her eyes, but what she did see there she desired with all her heart, she trembled, shed tears, screamed, rolled in the clayey earth with its odor of mint and decay, prayed on her knees, tore out the hair that had grown down to her knees and scratched her cheeks for the sake of some duck's liver. And that after a flock of wild ducks, as an unfathomable pause on their way to places without frost and icy north winds, had landed near her hut. Bluish-black, with comical tufts, sleek and terribly raucous, there were so many that when they rose above the muddy pools they blackened the sky. Every time they took flight, not knowing whether they were leaving for good or merely moving a little further on, in search of tepid water and shoals of fish, she would clench her fists in fury, until her fingernails made the skin of her palms burst and bleed. Far off, on the island, at the sandy end towards the town, there were a few houses and, from time to time, she would make summary barters with the owners; she would give them caviar in return for twine and hooks, for matches she would tether unruly horses, she would go with a skirt full of blackberries, pounds of them, and return with a half a gallon of gas. From them, from those taciturn and scowling folk who looked at her as though she were a scarecrow, who mocked her and ceaselessly cheated her, she obtained two buckets of lees from a heap left by a plum-brandy still. In return she offered a three-foot-long pike, which was still moving. All afternoon, with the meticulousness of a girl who had been taught how to wind the raw silk from silkworm cocoons, to weave at the loom and to plait loaves for funeral repasts, she had filled the bellies of the fish with the fermented and long-distilled leftovers. Bleaks, redeyes, bream, and perch entered her wretched net, obtained a few weeks earlier in exchange for a live deer kid. She groped for ducks when it grew dark. They had gathered in throngs on a small lake sheltered from the wind, maybe as many as a thousand. They were already dozing. A weary quack could still be heard here and there. Stanca (whose name would never be known to the child she bore in her womb, although Tufty had dreamed of discovering it, Gherghe less so, and Onufrie not at all) approached noiselessly, became soaked and muddied up to the thighs creeping through the as yet green reeds. She scattered over the water her alcoholic fish fry in a thin layer. The ducks did not sense her, and she experienced a long, sleepless night of expectation, during which she kept thinking and praying that her plan would work and during which the unborn child in her womb struggled as never before. In the morning, when the sun was about to rise, and the mist of the river was growing thinner, was unraveling in milky strips, the flock of ducks took flight for the last time, with a terrible flapping noise. She was not sorry, because she had collected forty-nine drunken birds. She tore them apart and ate their livers raw; she still had matches and splintered wood, but she no longer had patience. She washed the streaks of blood from her mouth and cheeks. She gave everything she had accumulated – the net, the gas, a blanket, and a smoke-blackened pan – in order to be ferried over the Danube. And she set out on foot over the now empty fields of stubble towards her village on the hill. Somewhere on the way, in a willow wood, she gave birth to a boy. She wrapped him in a piece of white linen, which, since her time in Braila, during her life at the silo, she had washed daily and laid out in the sun, on a bed of leaves and branches on the banks of a stream. She did not even notice that on his crown the infant had a tuft as long as his head. 
The English translation of the novel Little Fingers will be published by Harcourt in the United States in 2008

by Filip Florian (b. 1968)