Old Nick

 Avram, the verger of Saint Nicholas church, limping on one foot and shoed with a thick sole, hung on the rope of the church bells like an old monkey. On the side of the twisted leg, the arm was twice as long, and his hand seized the rope from above with the agility of a rope walker, as if sliding down from the steeple, past the bell board and the cross, among the murals.His face mirrored the hideous, inborn twist of the body. One of the ears was smaller, stuck to the gnarled cheek and the other, the big one, edged the deep concavity, buried in his gums. On this repellant face, his moustache rested upside down, resembling a small broom on the brink of a glass. The flakes of the eyebrow, which had the colour of the withered carrot, hung loose over the slanted eyes, as if a wretched feather, and the skin was abundantly blotted with yellow and red spots.Although he was grouchy by nature and due to circumstances, Avram knew a joke he made by putting his hand on his back, over his shoulder and scratching ostentatiously above his knees, or by taking out his watch from his belt pocket, after having put his arm around his neck. The phenomenon of the monstrous limb had amazed the inhabitants of the entire slum, but the permanent stay of the verger had annoyed them. Without being seen, Avram could take down the hams and the thread clews from the market shops, hidden several meters away from the open counter, as if he had a pole with moving fingers; in the run of the chart, he could lift up the fur cap of a fellow peasant, keep it in the air for a second, and then put it back, his arm swinging obliquely and horizontally, like the lever of a merchant's scales. He tried the supplementary jokes only after he had drunk two pints of brandy. He would gambol sometimes in the churchyard, cracking his fingers above his head, forming a whip with two noisy finger tips, and then he seemed a hanged scarecrow, swinging his melting legs, dragged on the asphalt.He put out the big candles with his fingers, wetting the candle ends with his spit and laughing at the sizzling of the stifled flame.One day, in church, a child accidentally hit his slobbering mouth with a burning candle. As he stood up and tried to catch the child who had dashed off, the boy's father seized the hunchback by the scruff of his neck and smeared his face with the flour of a funeral wheat porridge. Although the sad ceremony commemorated the passing away of a fellow being, the sudden incident made the pious women and the girls with black scarves burst into laughter. Avram made a wry face, let his arm drop along his body, stooped like a monkey as if he wanted to lift a stone slate from the ground and crush his vile enemies underneath. But the priest, who was drawing closer to the porridge in his golden surplice, with the slow, painful walk of the goose, signaled him to stay put and start singing with the others the religious hymns.Ever since, Avram had become the laughing stock of the villagers, coming to know the sudden shout in the ear of a parishioner, the slamming with the back of the hand, the fingering with the thumb, the flick on his neck, the curse and the mockery. Once a coachman blinded him with his whip, hitting him from the box of the carriage, and made him tumble as if he had fished him from the mud and now threw him back."Good boy," said the priest, "but he's a half-wit. He must be suffering for his parents' sins. God turned His face from him."Avram had found shelter in the church, slept in the steeple, licked the dishes, lived among the mice, chopped wood, lit up the censer, sang religious lines in a husky voice.He had heard about heaven and the good inhabiting there, and he was sure that one day the priest would send him to see the angels, on the occasion of Easter or Christmas, with a lit candle in his hand and a cross on his chest, dressed up in a white shirt with tassels. When the parishioners started singing "You, Holy God," at the mass, Avram, seized by violent enthusiasm, threw himself onto his knees, stood up, then knelt again, bent to the feet of the candlesticks, his chin to the light, then measured the distance between his forehead and belt with his huge right hand, and the width between his shoulders, saying "in the name of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit", unclenching his fingers when he said "Amen." Avram's genuflections resembled a crucifixion, and his piousness made him more and more eligible for life after death. "Those who starve shall be fed," said the priest when Avram kissed his hand. For a couple of years, Avram had been running to Jesus and back to the faithful, who hadn't had a toy till verger Avram had appeared in their lives. The priest had promised him he would use his influence in the bishopric and make Avram a monk, that is, a bearer of an angelic face, and Avram had comforted himself with the hope that he would wear a furred cloth mantle, a mohair frock and, in view of this great miracle, had grown a scarlet beard and some thin hair on his head. A monk from the HolyMountain, who sold red crosses, adorned with a glass eye through which you could see Jerusalem, had presented Avram with a thread, hallowed rosary, which the hunchback wore in his bosom. But his wit had darkened and the lumps on his head and the bruises caused by the inhabitants of the slum started to ache all over his body, like a hot, sore boil. He lost his mind when the parishioners started to call him "Old Nick." Avram knew that "Old Nick" was the devil.Ever since, he had been trying to take revenge, craving to kill. It seemed that the only right way was to catch one of his enemies, knocked him down and put him to death. He imagined how he would seize the latter from behind, tie him up with his long arm, drink up his soul with his nose and then spit it out, wiping his tongue with the sleeve of his coat. He had a lust for murder and for filth. He would have dragged his enemy by the seat of his pants and keep him there, the same way the big fish had confined Jonah to its belly, and after the rapscallion had started to stink, he would spit him out, all reeking and foul. He was fully aware of what he wanted to do but he didn't know how to begin, because every time he tried to get closer to a ruffian or a bastard, the latter beat him black and blue.One evening, as he was wandering near the waste ground, which was covered with litter and glass splinters, Avram Pirvu found what he had been looking for. On an old mattress, there lay a sick dog. Avram grinned with spite and genuflected, drawing near the dog on all fours. He extended his long arm. The dog, all patchy with scab, wagged its tail at the sight of a human being commiserating with its sufferance. Dragging his head in the litter, Avram opened his mouth and threw himself onto the dog, which started howling dreadfully. The man bit the leg of the dog with might and main. And as the dog was still whining and bleeding heavily, unable to run away, Avram dashed to the scared priest and told him, almost choking with laughter:"Your Holiness, I've killed it, I am redeemed, praise the Lord!" A prolific writer who "changed many a line of work and escaped unhurt from whirlpools, like a victorious dog whose sole concern was to rescue from drowning a single object" (a pen), Tudor Arghezi (1880-1967) was one of the greatest stylists of Romanian literature.

by Tudor Arghezi (1880-1967)