CHAPTER IMother's Poor Little Things Mara, bless her heart, was now a widow with two children, poor little things, but she was young and healthy and hard-working, and God allowed that she got lucky again.As a matter of fact, when he lived, Bârzovanu, her late husband, was more of a botcher than a shoe mender, and would spend his time more gladly at the pub than at home; anyway, the children inherited from him some two hundred plum trees in the meadow of Murăş river, the small vineyard on the Păuliş hill, and the house their mother had brought as dowry. Then, a fine thing for a merchant woman, Radna is Radna, and Lipova is just across the Murăş, and in two hours you can get to Arad. On Tuesday mornings, Mara put up her stand and arranged her full hampers in the market on the right bank of the Murăş where people from as far as Sovărşin and Soboteliu gathered for the weekly fair, together with vine growers from as far as Cuvin. On Thursday mornings she would cross the Murăş and set up her stand on the left bank, the meeting place of folks from Banat as far as Făget, Căpâlnaş and San-Miclăuş. Friday nights, after the roosters sang, she left for Arad so that come day she could have her stand already fitted out in the big market visited by people from seven regions. The thing is you never saw Mara empty-handed: she sold what she could, and bought what she found; she took to Radna what you didn't find at Lipova or Arad, and to Arad what you couldn't get at Radna or Lipova. Her principle was never to take to mart what she brought in, and also rather to sell at a small profit than to have her merchandise grow stale. Only on Saint Mary's day did Maria return home with her hampers empty. Up on a hill slope on the right of the Murăş rose a Minorite monastery, the famous Maria Radna. From the belfries of the big and beautiful church you could see upstream the moss-covered ruins of the Şoimoş citadel; in front of the church there stretched the beautiful Radna and across the Murăş there stood Lipova with the shiny and bedizened tower of the Romanian church, while downstream there lay the endless plain of the HungarianLand. But Mara saw nothing of that; for her it was just a wide space in front of the monastery where people, lots of people gathered.In that church there was a miracle-working icon, a weeping Virgin at whose sight sick men got well, poor men felt rich and wretches felt happy.Though a true Christian, Mara used to go to that church at times, but she signed herself properly, genuflecting as one should before God. She didn't believe in the icon working miracles. No, sir, that she didn't believe. She knew very well that a German Blessed Virgin was not a true Blessed Virgin. It was something else. The monks, who wore their heads smooth-shaven and made terribly ugly faces, had an arcane knowledge and could work all kind of magic to cure diseases, to make poor men gain assistance and wretches find succor. So it was a good thing that people came to pray at Maria Radna, and Mara's heart rejoiced when close to the Blessed Virgin's Day the weather was fine so that people came in groups, taking as long as a week's journey, with banners in the wind, crosses decked with flowers, and singing psalms and litanies. Now that hundreds and thousands congregated in the wide space in front of the monastery it was time for Mara to harvest, and in the morning she went out with her baskets filled, and in the evening she returned with them empty. That is why Mara crossed herself before the icon, then took her little children whom she always carried along, pushed them up front a bit and told them: "Cross yourselves, my poor little things!"They were poor, the poor little things, because they did not have a father; she was poor too, for she was a widow with two children; who, good God, could she leave them with when she went to the mart? And how could she be without them from morning till evening? How could she, when it felt so good to be with them?!Mara went all over the place, she dashed sprightly, hassled and argued with folks, moaning and groaning at times about her widowhood but then she looked around and saw her kids, and started laughing again."Nobody has children like mine!" she said to herself and nobody knew it better than she, who all day met children and people and did not lay her eyes on a single human being without being tempted to make comparisons with her children. They were very healthy and rosy, hale and hearty, lively, smart and handsome; and they were bad, so bad it made you wonder, and everybody knew that only bad kids make decent grownups.Besides, they were in tatters and bare-footed and unkempt and unwashed, mother's poor little things! But then, their mother was about the same. After all, how else could a poor widow be? How could poor kids be who spent their life at the mart, getting in people's hair? A big, broad-shouldered woman, heavy, her cheeks coarse with so much sun, rain and wind. All day long Mara would sit at her stand, behind the desk loaded with fruit and gingerbread. The fish basket stood on the left while on the right water was boiling for the sausages accompanied by horse radish that she would grate from time to time. The kids ran around and made busy, coming to her when they were hungry and leaving when they were full, then played merrily, fought a little, now the two of them, now with others, and thus the day flew away.In the evening, Mara ate alone most of the times since the kids, deadbeat, fell asleep while she was cooking dinner. Mother munched first for herself and then for her kids. A pity to leave off anything for the following day!Then, after drinking a pot of good water she pulled out her purse and started counting. She never tallied just what she had made the day before but what she had made her whole life. Deducting the interest from the capital, she laid aside the money for the following day, then went to the head of the bed and brought forth three socks: one for her old age and funeral, one for Persida, and the third for Trică. There was not a single God-given day that she failed to stash at least one coin in each of the three socks; anyway, she would more gladly borrow for tomorrow than take a single coin from her treasure. When she could hoard a bigger denomination she kissed it then stood like that, all by herself, the money on the table in front of her, deep in thought. Then she started to cry.It was not that she was in dire straits; when life's hardships got her, Mara didn't cry but broke pots or turned tables and baskets upside down. She considered what she had inherited when she became widowed, what she had now, and what she would ever have. Even a character like Mara relented when she felt how good it was to live in this world, and run from morning till night, and know you didn't do it for nothing.During the day she saw a lot of folks and if she met a woman whose looks, nature and position she liked she said to herself with secret satisfaction: "That's how my Persida will be like!" And if it was a man that she liked, she said: "That's how my Trică will be!"There was this woman, the priest's wife of Pecica, a wonderful woman, with a sweet disposition, rich and beautiful too; Mara would have broken all the pots had anyone dared suggest her Persida would not become like that woman, and even more. That priest's wife had been in a nun's convent from Oradea-Mare for four years; so it was a positive thing that Persida would stay with the nuns of Lipova for at least five years.Mara made every effort to persuade mother Aegidia, the steward, to promise to take her child in for only sixty florins a year since she was a widow with two kids, the poor little things. A couple of years passed and Persida turned nine and yet Mara could not make her mind up to spend so much money for nothing. She could have paid the sum since she had it; that she knew better than anybody. But her nature would not allow her to withdraw anything from any of the three socks.Trică was less of a problem.There was this man at Lipova, Bocioacă, a master sheepskin-coat maker, who in summer worked with four journeymen, and in winter with ten; he brought the most beautiful sheepskin-coats to the mart, he had a lease on slaughtering, and was married to Marta, the girl of the Cladova priest. A wonderful man! That's what Trică had to become! And for that he didn't need too much schooling either! Just as much as it took to be accepted as journeyman.Whereas Mother Aegidia asked a lot – six florins a month and, on top, there were other expenses."Hmm!" Mara would say, wrinkling her eyebrows and starting to calculate in her mind how many people crossed the raft bridge on the Murăş every year. Nobody in this world could have done that computation better than she who had been on the banks of the Murăş for so long.What if she took from Persida's sock the money for the lease of the bridge? She could give more than others because she wanted to gain only the sixty florins and a little something over. Then she would also gain the right to place her stand and baskets at the head of the bridge which everybody had to pass by sometime.So Mara counted and counted her money in her head; two coins per man and ten for a pair of horses or oxen; she kept on adding until so much money amassed that her eyes filled with tears.Could a poor widow see her daughter become the wife of a priest, her son a master in the guild of sheepskin-coat makers and her heart not go soft?That things could be otherwise Mara refused to believe for she had in front of her eyes an extremely clear picture of how well things would turn out. CHAPTER XVIIIThe Curse of the House Man gets used to everything. So Mara got used to not seeing her daughter who was just across the Murăş. Everyday, she would glance at the house that sheltered her and there was not a single day when she would not learn how she was and what she did either from Talia or from somebody else. That's how it was supposed to be and no other way. The idea stuck into Mara's mind that her daughter would eventually ditch the German and the longer he left her alone the sooner she would walk out on him. That was why Trică would not go see her either; everybody had to abandon her and, seeing herself alone, she would come to her senses. Mara was beside herself with joy when she heard Persida was diligent, thrifty and knew her place, and thrice happy when she was told that the German ate and drank, burning daylight and spending his nights playing cards; that's how it had to be if Persida was to have enough of him.Mara wouldn't have put up with things so easily had Persida been her only child. But there was Trică, too. Oh, what a lad! He had suddenly grown as stately as a mountain fir, tall and broad-shouldered, vigorous and hard-working, neat-handed and shy as a virgin. Bocioacă appreciated him more than anybody else, and Bocioacă's wife looked at him like at her own brother, child, or something. Bocioacă and his wife had a girl, Sultana, now past twelve, and it was not difficult to guess what they had in mind. And they could not possibly have thought of a better choice.One thing Mara did overlook though: namely that her son was an unkempt and unwashed chunk who spooked girls away. Bocioacă couldn't care less about this for he simply minded just the hale, orderly man who always kept his place. While for Bocioacă's wife only the man who was ready to go through fire and water, and even sell his soul for her, mattered. You come to care about a dog whom you know to be faithful and then how could she not care about a man she knew would do anything for her?! She felt something terrible would happen if he went away, and therefore she always kept him close by herself; she would look into his eyes when she wanted to do something and, sufficed it that he frowned a little, and she would instantly drop everything. It's no small feat to find a man you can perfectly trust!And no small feat either to know how to be accorded someone's full confidence. Trică would shudder at the thought that kept him awake most of the time lest his master or especially his mistress could regret having put all their trust in him – and his heart was often in turmoil.He had come to Bocioacă's house as a lad, a boy, in fact; and little by little he had turned into a grown man. That was plain to Bocioacă; not to his wife though who would deem him still a boy, rather a child than a full-fledged man, and would continue to have him pour water to wash her hair. In fact, she even experienced a sense of luxury when his young eyes lingered in abandonment on her round arms, her bare shoulders padded with soft flesh, or sought with a sort of fear the more secret parts of her charms. After all, why had she been endowed with them if innocent eyes could not take delight in them?! If rich men love counting their money it is only natural that women should strut their stuff especially when there's nothing to fear.Indeed there was nothing, no, nothing to fear! Trică was like a block of ice, and not for the whole gold in the world, not for the life of him would he have confessed what was going on in his heart.He felt too jolly good not to keep the matter to himself.But in this world nothing ever happens that will not come out in the end.Mara was sitting in the dark at home, by herself. Whatever for to waste a candle when where was nobody to look at, and thoughts could crop up just as well and even more clearly with no light on. The woman was fretting for she was only human and had a parent's heart.She had learnt that the German had beaten Persida. Then he had gone away, left, at long last, he had left her; she had learnt that and she could not rejoice.Oh! How she would have liked to spit him in the face, to pluck his eyes out, to pull his hair out, to tear his clothes. No, she couldn't let it be!Not that things had not worked out the way she had expected; but she hadn't imagined she would find the story so hard to swallow. She was restless; she felt more and more like going to see her daughter.Out on the porch she heard a noise. Somebody had walked over and was fumbling for the door.Mara rose to her feet stormily, took a step to the door and opened it.She could not see a thing."Who is it? What do you want?" she asked."Come," Talia said breathing hard, "for it's bad. I left her with the midwife and I'm off to fetch the doctor!""With the midwife!" Mara shouted infuriated and ran out like chased by mad dogs without closing any door behind. "With the midwife?!" she repeated after a while. "But I didn't know…I wasn't told!""We didn't know either," Talia replied, walking fast after her. "You know how she is. She wouldn't talk to anyone. She's so pent-up.""That's God's punishment to me for being so beastly!" Mara continued to run, crossing herself and praying to the Virgin to take pity on her, and not to rebuke her too harshly.After crossing the bridge she stopped; she felt as if she was coming apart. She just couldn't go there by herself. She had to take Trică along. She had to, and it was so difficult for her to make a detour, and Talia was going her way, looking for the doctor.Mara gnashed her teeth and made a fist, then she quickened her steps to Bocioacă's house.Trică, two apprentices, Marta, Sultana and a servant were all gathered in the yard, around the boiler where the plum liquor was bubbling when Mara walked in, mad as a wet hen."What's up?!" Trică asked her timorously."You come with me," Mara said in a hurry. The German beat her to a pulp. It's bad, it's very bad. The midwife is with her and Talia went for the doctor. That's past bearing!"Trică seemed thunderstruck.He too knew that Persida did not have a good life with her husband and he had often reproached himself bitterly for having run so fast to Sin-Miclăuş and Buteni to join them in holy matrimony. Little by little he had got used to the idea that it had been their destiny and that they would have been worse off if they hadn't got married. Seeing his mother so worked up and learning that his sister was not faring well he became anxious and unrolled his sleeves as he used to when he went away.Marta took a long glance at him.She couldn't let him go in the state he was. She knew him to be a hotheaded man and the way he was he could have run into some sort of trouble."If the midwife's with her and the doctor's coming too," she said, "I don't see how Trică could help her.""By showing her he's her brother!" Mara replied."That she knows!" Marta retorted.Trică kept quiet, standing stock-still."So you ain't coming?" Mara asked him insistently."What could I do there?" he answered.She looked long and harshly at him and then at Marta. She understood it all, and got the feeling that she no longer had a boy, either."Well! Then I guess I am enough of a person to go there by myself!" she sputtered and went across the lane like a hurricane.Persida knew her mother would come to her if she had known but she wasn't waiting for her. She had thought repeatedly of sending Talia after her but as soon as she felt better she changed her mind. "It's nothing," she would say. "Why trouble her for nothing? I've brought it upon myself so I'll have to deal with it myself!" But when she hurt again, when the feeling that she was not going to make it invaded her she would exclaim: "Oh, my poor mother!" Thus the midwife got the idea of sending Talia after Mara. That was good thinking but not for now, when Persida needed perfect rest and things could not possibly go quietly and peacefully given that Mara hadn't seen her daughter for such a long time and the present circumstances were so sad. God had willed that Trică had revealed his weakness at this very moment, and Mara, walking to the pub of Sărărie, was so upset because of Trică that she had forgotten her previous anger. Her heart striking free of Trică's image, all the love she had ever felt for him was suddenly channeled unto Persida. If ever she had doubted it, now she was definitely persuaded that Persida was not to blame for anything. "It's me who's been a terrible mother, a bitchy woman!" she said, striking her fists against her head.She was so repentant and contrite that when she arrived at the pub after having hurried terribly she suddenly stopped, not daring to go to her daughter.She sent a girl who was doing the dishes in the kitchen to call the midwife, and when the midwife had come out she asked her whether Persida knew she was coming."Don't tell her straight that I'm here," she said. "And if you reckon it's better I don't come in, I'll stay here."Mara was ready to sit at the door all night long.In a manner of speaking for, in fact, she didn't have to."Look," the midwife told Persida who was lying in a daze, "it would be a good thing to send someone for your mother."Persida opened her eyes and glued them on her."Why trouble her?" she replied. "It would not be easy on her. It's better not to tell her anything until everything is over.""She knows," the midwife explained. "I ignore who told her. But she thinks you'd hate it if she came.""That's not true!" Persida uttered, raising herself a little. "Mother can't believe such a thing. She knows I'm not worthy of having her come to me.""Look, she's here," the midwife cut in. "You want her in?""My poor mother! My good mother!" Persida moaned and hid her head between the pillows.That's how Mara found her when she walked in."Don't you worry, darling! Don't be frightened, everything will be all right. That's the lot of women!" she said softly and bent over her to fluff up the pillows under her head and to caress her forehead, touching it with the tips of the fingers."It's all right," she added, "rest good, my darling."Persida, without raising her eyes, got hold of her mother's hand, put it to her lips and kissed it several times. They stayed like that for a while, in silence."God is good," Persida whispered eventually, "and He wanted me rid of such harsh punishment. It's good that things have come out like this. Mother, please," she continued "look for Bandi! He's miserable, the poor man, he has nobody in this world, and he was faithful to me. Give him, if I don't make it, everything I have.""Well," replied Mara, "one doesn't die just like that. In fact, it's now that you start living properly. Thank God you are rid of that man for he did you only wrong."Persida turned a little in her bed, with her eyes on Mara."Don't blame him, mother. " she uttered, "he's miserable too, more miserable than I am."Mara withdrew some. She felt like leaving."So it's like it used to be!" she said bitterly. "You think you're always to blame!"Persida turned more to her mother and rose a bit in her bed."I, mother, and your blood," she said. "He would never have raised his hand at me if I hadn't hit him first. A man cannot overlook such a thing, and I would be ashamed if he…"The door opened slowly and timidly and Natzl let in doctor Blaubach, a small old man with gray sideburns.Persida lay back in bed while Mara stood up, her face to the bed, straight, stiff, her eyes glued to her son-in-law who, seeing her, withdrew a step, his head bent and his face livid.They remained like that during all the time the doctor spoke softly to the midwife, inquiring about Persida's condition. When he came closer to the bed to check on the patient, Mara drew to the door, and Natzl walked up humbly to her, took her hand and kissed it twice, one time after another.This thing happened too fast and the face of Natzl, his movements, his entire looks exuded so much repentance and amazement that Mara relented completely, and it was only after a few moments that she came back to herself and took a step back."Well," said the doctor, "I am not of much help! We must wait for nature to do its work. If she loses too much blood and she faints, call me," he turned to the midwife. "As far as I can see," he said to Natzl, "the baby is lost but then things will turn out all right. Let her be, above all let her lie in peace! I'll come back around midnight."After having said all that he walked out of the room, and Natzl accompanied him.Mara didn't know what to do. Something inside prompted her to run after him, to get hold of the man and tell him a piece of her mind outside Persida's hearing. But her soft disposition did not allow her to get far from Persida's bed, and in front of Persida she couldn't tell him anything, she had to accept everything, to suffer everything not to trouble her daughter."Oh, God," she said to herself sorely, "she still cares about him, more than about anybody else! That's the curse of my house! Both my children care more about strangers than about myself and their own folks. My heart is too weak!"When she saw Natzl returning she couldn't control her temper and went up to him, articulating slowly and harshly:"Didn't you hear what the doctor said? Leave us alone, so that we have quiet!"Natzl stopped short."I'll be out here at the door," he said, I cannot leave.""There's no peace in this house as long as you're around!" Mara uttered more loudly, rising both hands. "You walked away once. Then stay away!"Persida rose in bed frightened, and the midwife ran to Mara to calm her down."I cannot go!" Natzl mouthed the words distinctly and resolutely. "When I went away I thought she was sound and hale, so I walked away to rid her of a miserable being like me who caused her so much harm and cannot do her any good. Not even the most despicable man on earth would abandon his wife in such a state.""I thank God that I rid her of you even like this!" Mara shouted. "You, her husband?! She, your wife?! You were her executioner! That's what you were!""Endure, dear Natzl," Persida cried, "endure everything mother says for she's my mother, and a good mother she is. Yes, mother, he's my husband, and I'm his lawful wife, his wife before God so that we may help each other, I him and he me."Mara raised her hands to her head. She felt like pulling our her hairs clawing off her clothes, and banging her head against the wall."You don't need his help," she said more calmly. "If ever you…"Suddenly she stopped, her eyes glassy, her face haggard."Oh, poor me! Poor me! I left the doors of the house open and the secret nook in the wall uncovered!" she cried and rushed out like chased by the hounds of hell.How on earth not to hurry when all she had left was in that secret nook?

by Ioan Slavici (1848-1925)