Swampward Ho!

The two Popescus had meanwhile agreed that the first settlement the current location of the village could be traced down to, with any degree of accuracy, dated back to the middle of the 18th century or thereabouts, and belonged to a band of plain raiders coming to rest in a glade not much different from the one where nea Nae's lodge currently nestled. Their conjecture was that in those days the Istanbul road followed the alternate banks of the Mostiştea River. In order to cross from one to the other, wayfarers would resort to windlass-driven contraptions, akin to pontoons which were removed during winter, as the ice-bound river rendered them unnecessary. In the process, the signs marking the crossing points were also removed, leaving no indication as to where exactly the road was supposed to swerve away from the bank in order to continue through the forest. Thus, when spring came, those who had, by mishap, taken the wrong turn would find themselves bogged down in some dead end or, alternatively, devoured by wild beasts. That should explain the toponimics east of Bucharest, not exactly identical, yet close enough in form and meaning to suggest an aborted attempt to proceed any further, such as Fundeni, on the Colentina river, or Fundulea on the Mostiştea, both located not far from Borona. The teacher would insist on referring to the settlers of Borona as "outlaws", supposedly a semi-nomadic group striking reluctant roots in the cul-de-sac they had blundered into, and prowling on similarly unfortunate wayfarers to rob them of their possessions and horses. Zare would unceremoniously refer to them as "robbers". The way he saw it, and in full agreement with Braudelian anthropology, what mattered was, above all, the material civilisation of the people in question: the food they ate, the implements they employed in working the land or in the process of waylaying stragglers. And, not least, the grand question, which, Zare claimed, was the cornerstone of any history attempting to qualify as truth. Namely, who or what were these people afraid of? What mask would Fear put on for them? The world-economy maître Braudel is talking about is structured according to the necessities of exchange, and the contacts imposed by survival itself, yet he also claims that such worlds consist of a "centre" of limited extent, some relatively well-developed "secondary areas", and vast "outer fringes" extending – their boundaries both flexible and vaguely defined – to the vast "outer fringes" of another "centre". The juxtaposition of zones along the lines of the above-mentioned pattern makes up for a world-economy, while commercial exchanges make up for its vital flow – its lifeblood, as it were. It's pretty obvious. We've been living here in a vast "outer fringe", Zare would argue. It is therefore only natural for us to find material traces specific of a variety of "centres". As one or the other "centre" would attempt conquering the vast fringe (in most cases an apparently easy prey, since it had been slow to develop, it was archaic, less populated, lacking in technology or weaponry), we are bound to find traces of their failure in the dead end over which the outlaws/robbers held sway: from the Greeks, from the Romans, later on a fragment of a Turkish scimitar, an Austrian coin, etc. A Slavic cross shows that they would sometimes be accompanied by a wandering Orthodox priest, the old teacher concluded in front of some exhibit of his as yet unclassified museum. Well, Zare would retort, or, on the contrary, it could mean that they were bold enough to attack a troop who thought themselves protected by the God of the Orthodox, that they had no fear of Him. Around 1750, the Romanians had been Orthodox for a long time, Iorgu Popescu would raise his voice. When searching for the truth of a Fringe, we are not to depend on the written sources originating from the "centre". Even if less than fifty kilometres away we have a royal palace complete with Orthodox church, here, along a road crossing a forest we have to accept the logic of the "fringe". It could be that the founders were a group of Moslems who, in their turn, had lost their way while travelling from the South to the North. After all, even the oldest families of Borona have slanting eyes and swarthy complexions… At such moments, the polemic had to cease; else it would have caused an irreversible break-up. The old man's tact and the young man's genuine passion would, nevertheless see to it that each time the polemic was dropped. In the evening, on the way back to Bucharest, Zare would resume the demonstrations he had interrupted out of wisdom while at the old man's house. FEAR is the key to any historical truth, he would postulate. The "centre" is afraid of one thing, the "secondary area" is afraid of another thing, whiles the "outer fringe", in its turn, is afraid of yet another thing, in a different way. The Substance of Fear, which is nothing but the portrayal of real enough hardships upon the canvas of imagination, is responsible for the differences existing between "centres", "secondary areas", and vast "fringes". It also determines the specific of each separate "centre", namely, what makes it distinct from another "centre", that is. However, while the "centre" develops a Faith to counterbalance its specific Fear by way of bulwark, in "secondary areas", and in vast "fringes", we are confronted by more intense Fears, and by a corresponding assortment of fear-resisting instruments, resulting in unexpected Faith-mixtures: ancient animist beliefs on which a variety of import mythologies have been grafted, Greek goddesses coupled with Roman gods, the cult of water as practised by Moslems coming from some desert or other, respect for and deification of the horse as with some Asian peoples, or compassion with the lamb sacrificed by herdsmen along the way, and hence... the love for Christ. Thus, the apparition going by the name of Muma-Pădurii is a frightening spectre for the children of the "centre" while being nothing but a fertile maternal deity for the vast wooded "fringe", where a band of stragglers settled down in a glade where spring water could be found, and started an autarkic economy. I ought to add that in the wake of such field trips, I was troubled at night by most outlandish dreams, an encounter of sorts with the masks, simultaneously familiar and frightening, of some hirsute creatures who, in my dream, I believed to be my blood relations. So that's about all there is to it. A village of underdogs who don't know where they are coming from, why they became Orthodox, who built their first church, who was the landlord who brought the Gypsy slaves over and set them free afterwards, how come there's a railway within easy reach of the village. They went on building shelters for themselves out of wattle and daub, giving birth to children and dying, scraping the earth yielded by deforestation for a living, always hanging their head, and forgetting the Fear only when they managed to avoid taking a straight look towards the disquieting horizon, where anything and anybody could come from. The Sign of the Diver, a novel Compania, Bucharest, 2000

by Mircea Nedelciu (1950-1999)