The Almsmonger's Lover

excerpt After the snow, the numbers in the grounds of the church had grown scarce. The people did not have warm clothes, and notably not a thing to cover their feet. Then the blizzard commenced. When spring was drawing near, Mite would learn that uncle Minele had expired at the altar, a victim of his lung condition; it chanced to happen in the vicinity of a Savior's crucifix made in plaster, very much in his resemblance, as it seemed on that frosty morning. The villa where they dwelled was situated on a hillside. From the window in Mite's room on the third floor, one could see the billowing tiled, or plated, roofs dotted with leafage and interspersed with brick walls, and house-fronts painted in pale colors, peeled and smoked. On the left-hand side, the clustering of dwellings was severed by the broad embankment of the Dambovitza, snaking amply into the horizon where, on a clear day, the towers of the Patriarchy were to be distinguished against the background of lush greenery and belvederes on the Brancovan estates. It was there, according to his mother's accounts, that he had seen the light of day, as would all his younger brothers. From thence the snowstorm had obliterated the entire view, and only a trifling number of passers-by could be seen on the alley. The convulsions and the obstinate roaring of the storm was multiplying by the minute, entertaining and feeding Mite's anxiety. On the table, notebooks and books lay scattered, and the sheets had cluttered a-havoc in the middle of the bed, and on the floor and the chairs – pullovers and trousers. At times, the maid, new in their employ – a flaxen, strong-boned and diminutive Hungarian woman, with an air that reminded him of a stray, white dog from the slums that had taken to the children – would come to tidy up the room in his presence. On several occasions, she had stormed into the bathroom while he was showering. She would then halfway mutter some kind of an excuse while rummaging through the laundry basket. She could not have reckoned – could she then – that he was not exactly a youngster anymore; therefore, in his turn, he sometimes lingered in front of her window, on the semi-basement level of the villa. She could hardly speak a broken Romanian, and it was a matter of weeks before this almost tacit watch was aborted. One day, he found her sitting with his father in the kitchen conferring in a low tone; he could see them, elbows on the table, head-to-head, as they seemed to get along dandy. He remembered that, of late, father had begun to come home earlier, as if he intended to coerce him into learning after school; several times he had scolded him on account of the disorderly state of his room. But now he seemed to be in another mood altogether; at the same time, he looked embarrassed when he noticed him standing in the kitchen doorway, as if he had been caught in a compromising position that Mite could intuit offhand. It was the Magyar who helped him out, when – in her unpalatable Romanian-Hungarian lingo, familiar, it seems, to his father – she opinionated that the master should better hand Mite some money for the pictures, for at Tomis' they projected a new flick, a fine one – Belmondo was in it – that she had seen the day before… And while he fingered into his pockets for money, he also served as an interpreter and Mite could not help being jubilant that he had ridded himself of the homework, and the nag about the untidiness of his room. Even more, as never before, he was presented with twenty-five lei, more than enough for the film and the sweets, or anything, anything else. Father was dastard, and besides made all sorts of incongruous demands, and was seized by unnatural fits. He would get his tantrums especially when he would learn about his bad marks, and strap him with his belt. Father was printing a paper Mite never read, and that nobody Mite knew ever read. The Magyar had started to spark a sort of repulsion off in him, akin to that he had for uncle Minele. He could sense where the mutual vigil would end as she existed for her father and, seemingly, in his likeness. Then he noticed that mother and the English tutor were also kindred spirits – that man, imposed on him after enrolment in a class where French was taken. When he arrived from school that day he found the door locked and rang the bell for a very long time, then he waited on the doorstep. He felt too hungry to make for to the church grounds immediately, and, at the Magyar's sill, no stir. She had probably been given an afternoon off, still – clearly, someone was in the house. The lad had his key, but the door was locked from the inside with the safety catch. Almost an hour went by until his mother came to open up. He intended to race straight into the kitchen to take something in, but his mother drew him in, in an attempt to introduce him to the English tutor. From the very beginning, he took a strong dislike to that rotund and dapper fellow, younger than his mother; this man, he could not imagine apart from the torment of learning a language he had thought himself absolved of, forever and a day. When the man stretched his hand out, he turned and spurted into the kitchen, so mother excused him on account of his hunger. Then she came after Mite – what were all these airs – poor man was there merely to give a hand, what would he make of it? – whereupon he argued he was hungry and had been waiting for one hour on the stairwell until she had…she had… Mother daggered him with a poisoned look, and not a tidbit intimidated, mastering the entire scene and mastering him, then recommended that he should think seriously whether it was, or was not, his intention to learn aught, if he would like or not to amount to something in life, if he really intended to be uncle Minele's shadow, or the like, a split image of the alms-mongers and all the others he saw loitering around in Sever's inn, day-in day-out… It sounded like an implacable threat that was not quite like mama, and that moved him to defy her, commanding her in a high tone to leave him to his meal. Mama started to dither and exited the kitchen. While eating, he tried to think very earnestly, if he willed it or not, and what he actually willed. Certainly, he would not have fancied treading in the steps of mama or papa or of the Hungarian maid or the English tutor; as regards the latter, he succeeded to break his will on the very first lesson. He would never be like them, as they were hideous and caitiff, and surely he would be compelled to run off, for fear he would one day find himself in their likeness. The blizzard outside made him increasingly fidgety, and the urge to run overcame him seemingly more than ever, but he just was not able go out for a sleigh ride on a nightmarish day like that. He would have to wait until the weather settled. On other mornings, he was constantly the first one to tag along his sleigh. He would leave his English and his French books and the rest, topsy-turvy on the table. Well towards noon, when due for school, only few children would show up with their sleighs. After lunch, others would join them, young and old. At times, Mite would stay on with them. Once every third or fourth day he would forget to make for his classes altogether.One can glide down a mile, or thereabouts, on a number of streets well down towards the Dambovitza bank. But on that occasion, the storm would simply heist him away, aid him in making his escape – to a place, maybe, where he would not have to see any of them again. It was so bitterly stormy, he just knew that running off was unavoidable. He would evict them out of his self, as if they had been a thing that prevented him from living, as if he could not abide in that place any longer. He dashed out with his sleigh, towing it along and clanking it with its pipe runners against the stair cement. He would, at last, free himself from them.He slid downhill on the desert street, exceedingly slowly on account of the wind that was blowing in his face. Then he swerved into another street, as the sideways wind seemed to lighten his slide. At the other end, the slope ended. From thence he had to mount, dragging his sleigh behind. In that spot, the snow was falling down quietly. The blizzard had ceased, but no: it hit him in the face after the first steps upward, choking him into the snow. He got up to his feet, with his face ablaze with the wind and the snow, and then he heard a call amidst the doomsday-ish roar. It was not his name, it was no one's name, but he knew that he was the one to be called. He had never seen that flaxen-haired woman in mourning, but knew who she was, in a flash, as his flight had been set off by her, and as she was a constant spur for him not to stop, ever. She clasped his sleigh, took it in the yard and gave him a gas tin. Where the gas station was, that he knew, two stops away from the Tomis movie theatre – next to the tram railing above an underground public WC. There was another gas station at the end of the tramway line, at Saint Friday's, but it took a longer while to get there.When he did not have to queue, this would not take him more than ten minutes. On his way to the gas station and back, he would not cease to run. He would thus return covered in sweat, with the canister half spilt on the way and on the verge of expiring."You've run, you 'ave, my wee Mite. Afraid, methinks, that someone would steal yer alms lady away from ye, were you? That the scalawags would not mangle me with their knives as they have promised so, repeatedly. Ye'd feel sorry for me now, would ye?""There would not be any cause for't, I have told you on so many occasions before. Both almsmongers are to drop dead when they try to lay as much as a finger on you. I will kill them then with their own knives, that everybody should know what I have killed'em for…""I know ye'll defend me," the alms woman said, not in the least troubled by the truth of his words: this twelve-year old with the brawn of a lad of sixteen. Then she would take it to her head that: you fancy me and so: 'trim their jackets' one day and then we will be able to paint the town red… Her line of thought would be disturbed at that point. She knew that the future should not be meddled with. For the moment, lock the door, there ye go, that the mongers should not ambush us.The hot ashes at the fireside had faded overnight, while she had been on watch at the bakery; the tin in front of the fireplace stood filled with brushwood he had acquired for money, still carrying the marks of snow. Next to them: a piling of newspapers, bought by her precisely in view of further fire-lighting, The New Dawn worth five lei, and a complete broadsheet of sixteen pages, thoroughly gas-sprinkled, damp wood even – therewith he managed to kindle a flame, while, next to him, she was changing out of her mourning dress. In a shiver, she flung a house gown over and barely managed to produce the steaming bread, and the eggs, and the thickly wrapped butter she brought back each morning from the factory, that the stove started to roar and a glow would invade the room. "Goodness me, that's quite some water ye 'ave sweated there, my cock – yer little heart's all a-poundin'. Let's then creep under the blanket, my love, that ye don't come down with some chill. Ye've grown up this winter… I've raised ye, now ye're a regular, grown-up man and I'm still petrified when ye're not here with me… and when ye plough me, lad: goodness me, my see-renity, my sugarboy…"He was, indeed, a man, at age twelve – biting his nails that every evening and night and morn should pass sooner, so that he find her anew under the covers and under her gown that would slide off her once the heat had permeated the room, intermingling with the heat of their bodies. Slowly, they would find themselves rolled out of bed and mixed with the dress and with the cover, in their unleashed play that bore the smell of gas and storm fire. This would frighten their guts, then she would start laughing and – he felt – she could never help it and it seemed as though she would dismantle entirely as her firm flesh quaked in fits and every bit of her being shook with self-destruction. He would die along with her, for he was she. That was a laughter that pierced through terror, that was a laughter that epitomized both, and it was her hand leading his and their fingers, startled by the melody of this redeeming laughter. Nevertheless, it would have been out of the ordinary to behave like two old people, taking a stroll down the memory lane, even if what brought them together was nothing more than one memory. Now she had come to see him. Whenever she wanted to see him and whenever she had seen him against her will, even if she had begged him to stop harassing her, to stop looking for her, all her intentions faded away under the power of the same thought: to sleep with him. She had come to see him after ages and that thought rushed through her whole body like a venom out of which the last drop of sweetness had dripped out. It was a terrible illness and the illusion that he might cure her was even worse. It was already too late. She didn't feel able to give herself to this strange, big, sleazy, ugly man. All of the sudden she was awfully homesick; she missed Sorin and her Romi, the old folks and her friends the bakers, from which you always knew what to expect, all those people who cared about her and had nothing to do with this man."It is late. I'll get going," said the Almsmonger. He looked up from her blouse. She saw evil eyes, lighting up the darkness of a face that she still strove to hate. She had to hate him, for his looks and speech. She had to hate and despise this being wholeheartedly, it was the only way to get cured of him."I was saying that maybe you could hang around for a couple of days. I found this hotel room…""No, Mitelush, I have tarried enough on my way here, and there are so many things to see to back home."Why should she hate him? What is he to be blamed for? In spite of his youth, she almost pities him. He has this hungry look, begging for help and she cannot help him in any way. She is up to her neck in her chores, her responsibilities. Her folks are waiting for her, concerned with her faith and theirs at the same time. What would they do without her? She would have to lie to them, to come up with a story…"I will get going, Mitelush, right now. My train is due in less than an hour.""Stay a little bit more. It takes us one quarter of an hour to get to the station.""No. I am going now.""Stay for three minutes. Wait for me."He dashed off. She waited for him, her eyes on the watch, thinking of the train she could not miss, thinking of the trip that was too long and seeing herself at home, among her folks. He came in running, skidded on the concrete floor and propped himself on the back of the chair she was sitting on. He had had a bath. His trousers were wet here and there, he had taken off the T-shirt and put on the khaki jumper. The alertness that had come into him all of a sudden and his smiling, serene features reminded her of the twelve-year old boy in the market in December. She wanted him again hopelessly, she wanted again to be far away from him. She made an effort to smile."You will see your old Almsmonger off to the station.""Yes, I will protect you from the Almsmonger's boys," he said. "I will always look after you…"The road and the lane were in the dark. She hung to his arm with both hands and stepped carefully. He had started to tell her about the life he had there, things he knew she had always disliked and taken no interest in. "Shut up!"It sounded like an order and a promise. She was the Almsmonger, unchanged and yet different than he used to know her. She wanted only him, not things that could be related to him, but her former joy had turned into fear and impatience. Eventually, she said:"You know how much I want you.""I do, and I will take advantage of that. I will torture you, because you deserve it. I have no pity for a… an old woman. This is where we stood a couple of years ago. How old are you?""Rather old… well over thirty."He knew she was thirty-six. The day she had turned thirty-six he had sat only at the edge of the wood, lying in the grass with his eyes closed, until it had got dark. He saw her putting some cherry-pie in the oven and then she started feeling dizzy and stayed in bed all day long, pale and hallow-cheeked; she didn't touch any food for two days, then she gradually recovered, started walking in the house, and she went to the factory only five days afterwards."Well, you could be my grandmother, Almsmonger. Very nasty of me. But you are a pervert, too, because you want me. We are two big perverts, I wonder how come that we are still alive, how come the Earth hasn't split in two to swallow us…""Mitelush, I have already told you, I am not free. I have heavy chains to bear.""Where are they? I don't see them, I don't hear them! Listen, I have no mercy for you. I have no mercy for anyone, you do realize that we have both come to live among people who have no mercy for each other. But you are the most merciful of all, you would like to look after everybody. To comfort them, to give them bread, to cook alms both for the dead and the living and to shelter everyone under your wing, if you could. You have mercy for everybody but for yourself. You like tormenting yourself or, well, I don't know exactly what you want. I don't know why you have come to me…""I have come to see you, Mitelush, because you wouldn't see anybody.""I want to sleep with you, I am very keen on that. Because I am a soldier, a convict, a pervert who has no shame for doing that to an old woman like you…"She clutched more and more strongly to his arm and her clutch said the same: shut up, shut up, unheard now, but echoing her whole despair. They were next to each other and his hands fumbled frantically under her blouse. They had stopped at the end of the lane, under the rustle of a bunch of trees, and his palms climbed up and down her back, then down the hips, molding them unconsciously, then under the skirt, in her underpants, caressing and worshiping her hot buttocks. The lights of the windows of the blocks and those on the station platform and the pub's yard were visible in the distance. His desire quenched, getting more vigor and continuity, sustained by infinite calmness, which he hadn't felt for a long time; he had been always sure that this was a state of mind that only this woman could induce to him; you had been waiting, you were waiting, you have always, incessantly been waiting for her, both you and your dog-like love and now she is clenching you, trying to swallow you, to devour you with her indomitable desire, while the back of your palms keep caressing the hot womb, going down again and again."No, please, don't," her voice begged him, and he felt her entire turmoil, the dread of her desire and his hands went back to her hips and again to her great buttocks, which were so sad because of this dog-like world made by dogs. His hands went down again, caressing her and stretching his fingers to the place from which they had come back. The Almsmonger shuddered under his chest, and pushed herself into his virility whose sting she could feel through the cloth of her skirt and his trousers. By now, he had come to acknowledge entirely this body and the peace that it gave off, filling him up, without ever quenching his thirst, while she shuddered more and more, until he felt her liberating herself and hiding from him against his chest, and her laughter turning into a moan."Do you like it, Almsmonger?" he asked. "Does it feel good?""I don't know. I want to feel you inside," she said, pressing her palm on the waist of her skirt while he was caressing her short hair and her nape, the head of a beloved child. He had undone his trousers and he stood on his tip-toes towards her naked womb, which the hem of the blouse didn't cover anymore. Then she started to bend, but stopped and pushed him away and turned her back to him, hiding her face in her hands. "No, I don't recognize myself in this," she said, discovering herself once more to be overwhelmed with grief and helplessness, assisted by his fear to help her, to walk in his dog-like walking through the mire of her terrible dread."Let's go to the station, Mitelush," said the Almsmonger. He had spent enough, but still had enough money on him. When he intended to pay the taxi as he reached the building, he was, at one point, positive he had lost it – in which the deuce pocket was it then? It was in the purse, I had forgotten, what a scare. Never in my life has it happened that I lost five-and-twenty bani and I had to do it just now, when that stallion of my mother's-in-law hoofed even me. Ru-diiii, the bloody thiiieves are snatching the rhinoooo, Rudiii, he hollered into the night while whipping the air overhead with the jeans-and-coffee-and-beer-can plastic bag. Mother Grazielaaa!!! I am not drunk – no, irrefutably, no. Neither do I mind the smell of manure or fume, mother Graziela, nor the fact that we intra-fornicate – lest brethren's and sisters' blood be un-thickened or lost unto eternity. I don't mind, save that you never see it fit to raise my wages, mother Graziela, and brother-in-law Bajnorika seems not to notice one blasted thing as if he were possessed by Satan, doesn't hear, doesn't see, only smells the stench of money. Methinks he was Satan even. That was his name, indeed, and – in front of the staircase, he gave a short cry: My brother! Adrift in the darkness, he tried not to give in to the vertigo. He stumbled, clinging therein both-handed onto the banisters, and slowly feeling the cement on step number one. O brother – my brother, that's the final beer bought by yer cents and dollars, he trolled as he fingered his purse in search for the cap ring. Whereupon it was extracted: violently and dramatically, as if he were palming a grenade, yonder in the gloom. He emptied it in a long, sapid gurgle, which tasted in the way of sputum. The doors on the ground-floor, deaf as the entrails of earth, exhibited their frozen muzzles against the dark. Millions of tons of upset dust crushed down on him: no one no one no one there, neither mother Graziela nor that fork-whiskered fierce lover of hers. He choked for hoarseness and slowly fell again on the first step, with his head pressed foetally and clenching his bag to his chest, overcome with frost and nausea. At a given time, he found himself there, crying. The moon was not beaming through the door glass any longer. Maybe it had clouded. Maybe it would rain, still – whose dark was that? He threw up with a stifled and moaning hiccough. Against the blackness, a red light was gleaming with a dim halo. Someone was coming down on the elevator.The lift light would come to haunt him later like a screw vice crushing his skull, as he sank his eyes into her bosom. Only upon entering the apartment he recognized Dorina, and then, as well, he saw five long-stemmed, citrine flowers, hunchbacked and scalded in wait. Maybe their pungent smell had brought him back to his senses, upon being placed in a milk-bottle full of water then instantly resurrected, and then he learned they were carnations oozing large dew-like drops. He did not remember having seen flowers in that house before. There were other women at times and it would have been downright far-off for them to even bring flowers. They stay their stay, come and go, they go and they come, there is no one holding them and no one driving them away, they bide their time here, do not bring anything with them and do not find anything to take with them and nothing could make them linger in this place of no one, the place of said Cafanu Dimitrie, where one could sometimes spend the night over and it so happens that one finds food there – but they always come without the flowers and usually for one thing in particular. As he stood on the bedside facing her erect on that goatskin, he pulled her skirt and blouse head-over in one single abrupt move – before one of them could utter aught or hint at an intention. She had been thinking lately only at what was happening at the moment – when she looked for him at home and in the factory, waiting for him and going up and down the elevator, until she, rather pitying and almost disgusted, had brought him into his apartment in that painful state that she found him in, just a second before. She still could not figure out how she had, completely naked, landed on his face and how they immediately after had rolled down, in an embracing lock, on that goatskin, from one end of the room to the other, stirring the dust from the gnawed and coarse jute rug. It was scratching us as if it were asphalt, that shabby and unkempt, probably for years, and left me loads of scars on my knees and thighs, but instantly I did not feel anything but the chilling fire of his lips and his teeth freeing me from my own body and he was everywhere, piercing me from head to toe and searching for me listlessly and constantly finding me, well before I could lead him the way. It was exactly as I had imagined, though I had been daydreaming something that had never occurred to me, that stood beyond imagination, but that I was certain would happen to me by his hands. After I had come for the third or fourth time, I could not remember one thing happening to me, for indeed there was no ending – and afterwards I would feel him inside of me every minute, and take him everywhere I went, without cease. He was indeed a portly fellow, in spite of his recent appearance which gave him a dejected air. At the same time, he was but one of the many, was like the many, like his brothers whom fate had ordained that I would know in the self-same manner that I did him. Still, he meant far more to me than just a strong boy, 'cause, as I suspected and would become positive – when I started looking for him to be together with him – every thing before and after that was to become entirely, entirely strange to me. We had lived though several years of our childhood together, but that had no bearing on what was coming about at the time. Now, we were completely other human beings than back then or than at any other time, and what was happening now was the only truly significant event in our lives, that would follow me everywhere, and had indeed done so without my knowledge, but now, I finally knew and vowed myself not to forget his body that reminded me of my own, that body that had emerged from mine, that awe and joy doubled and trebled within the body of the animal that I was, and I was nothing else for that matter, while shaking with amazement. When they came to their senses they started over again, at first, because there wasn't anything better to fare, later, because they gradually understood that that was the most important thing to do, indeed. There was no food in that house, and he did not look as if he was in any mood whatsoever to go and buy some. He used to eat once a day at most, and extremely frugally, and that agreed with him, hence he advised her to do the same. Still she was hungry, I should only gradually get accustomed to your diet, till I become aware of its benefits, and I already feel a little shaky on my feet. Probably not entirely because of the hunger, so she asked him to help her walk to the bathroom. On the three meter way, she clung to him as she was limping forward – as if she were wounded, I have a wound here, feel it, I have a wound, too, and they both twitch under your touch. I was positive that the other evening or before, he had shredded my top and skirt, and was about to tell him that, when I glimpsed my clothes, neatly folded on the back of the only chair in the room. I covered myself and went out to buy some comestibles. The day was dawning, and it was probably the following or third day after: judging from the intensity of my hunger. He had been the only thing on my mind, but now I had to feed myself.  The air in the room was fiery and yeasted with the smell of their bodies. They had whiled away in it with the lights constantly on, closed windows, drawn blinds. When they opened the windows to let the air in, it was dark again and it had started to drizzle. The heroes of Radu Aldulescu's (b. 1954) novel The Almsmonger's Lover (Nemira, 1994), on which Lucian Pintilie based his 1998 film Terminus Paradis, whether offspring of the communist nomenklatura or slum dwellers, struggle to make ends meet – often with "unconventional" means – in an urban (and occasionally rural) jungle devoid of horizons – in that sense even bleaker than Eugen Barbu's The Pit: "His fear of losing her melted in the fear of harming her. He was indeed a vicious child who had begun to see in women a peculiar race, a sort of cats with many lives, endlessly reborn from one another as one strives to destroy them;" "It was not the age difference that made her recoil and chase him away, but her foreboding, about to be confirmed, that this child would never be able to become attached to something or someone."

by Radu Aldulescu (b. 1954)