The Couch Grass

Even if this was a long time ago, two of the phrases that remind me of her really bring her back to my mind. When her yard was filled with Gypsies, and – everybody knows this – such a thing happens often enough, because this is the way they go, in gangs, she would chase them out, rocking like a duck: "Mother-fucking Gypsies!" And when we, the high school boys, said hello to her, she would stop, she would look at us tenderly, and answer: "Hi!", adding a little more softly: "Dear little schoolboy!" Short, obese, slow, and heavy, she would come to our door and say, as if against her will: "Here, Jena, girl, give something in the memory of your dead. That's proper. I don't go to the village to beg, not me! I just come to you, your mom, and my women. So you, girls, will have somebody to give charity to. May the Lord receive!" And she would leave, as she came, rocking, and leaning on a stick. Her village house was across the road from the mill. This is probably why, although she never denied her Gypsy origin, she felt somehow different from the slum Gypsies, which she used strong words against. The year I am talking about, if you remember, when crows flew every morning over the village in summer, the yard began to be filled with Gypsies: their slum had been taken with the heat. Many, and of all kinds, from everywhere, they would come to us storming, to the Gypsy slum. They unharnessed their horses fast, gave them water, and, as soon as the sun set, every path led to that place. Men – like men! Not even the widower, the gray haired, could resist it, and, as soon as he went in there, he would never go out, until the boys chased him. Not even the married man. That one too, he would tidy up everything in his yard, give food and water to the animals, and then he would not sit down; he would go to the garden to bring some wood. And nobody suspected anything, we knew him. Only his mother-in-law scented out something. He went this way, she went that way, and she was not wrong: she found him there: "Don't do this, son-in-law, it's a sin, and shameful. You got a young wife waiting for you!" And he was so proud and mighty, and he said: "You can come with me, if you want. You can even watch, it must've been a long time since you last saw-" The old woman ran as fast as she could. She never told anyone anything. Not because she wanted to pretend she did not know things, but because she had a special sense telling her – and it was a good idea – not to take the boiling pot from the fire. "Don't you touch this!" she screamed, running across the field. "We are lucky there's peace everywhere now, and if you dare touch, the fist will speak, there will be blood!" Except she did not scream the way they scream: from her chest outwards, but, somehow, she screamed into herself, from the outside, and her chest was rising, as she caught her breath, and her dry breasts flapped, and her legs went weary. (This is why nobody heard her. Stevan Surdu told me; when he came back with the cattle from the drinking lot, he ran into her, and he understood everything, by reading her lips). An important, learned man, always with a book in his hand, he was not spared, either. He came from that place with red chicks, he lamented very noisily, and could not quiet down, he just struck young trees by the road. The night guards caught him and they said to him: "Sir, what're you doing? Is that human? People had such a hard time buying them, planting them!" "I'll pay for the damages! Just leave me alone now!" And so, he destroyed everything up to the road corner. And, the next day, he went to the owners of his own accord, and he paid for everything. I was sure my friend, a high-school student like me, had never been there. Except there were rumors. But he denied out loud. Until we happened to run into Raika, in the middle of the village. My friend, frowning: "Hey, tramp, when did I come to you?" And Raika smiles tolerantly, her teeth shining. "I didn't look at the calendar, to tell you the exact dates. But you've been twice; once in the tent, and once under the wagon. My mama saw you then, too, we can ask her. I don't lie. I'm ashamed to lie." My friend got quiet. During the day, I avoided that slum, but in the evening something pulled me there, too, something horribly powerful: it pushes me and it attracts me – irresistibly. Once, I almost did it, but, at the last moment, when I was already on the edge, either that way or this way, something struck me, and I turned back, and so I only got as far as Ceavka's house. I was coming back from there, my feet were sinking into the ground, I had a hard time pulling them out. And so on, until the water well. There, it was as if I got rid of some burden. I got home running, talking to myself: "I'll never go back there, again, never!" But not everyone is pulled back. And the old Gypsy had taken his woman with him (now that I am telling this story, I realize they never walked side by side, always one following the other. And when they have their children with them – they stretch out from one corner to another), and they went to see the Mayor: "Good morning, Mr. Mayor!" "What do you want?" the Mayor snapped, out of habit. "I came, because I say, if the children like each other, I won't be against it. Let's get to be in-laws. This is my wife, here. Let her tell you, was I ever against it?" The Mayor, short – Fuck you, you fucking Gypsy, and shit, and all that goes with that, but the Gypsy knows better: "Well, don't be angry, it's the madness of youth! Here, my Nasta – she's two months pregnant. Here, my wife's here, she can tell you." "That's right, Mr. Mayor," the Gypsy woman confirmed. "Desa," the Mayor called his wife, without listening to that talk anymore "Give them a thousand and tell'em to get the hell out of my yard!" Then he turned to the servant: "Get the carriage! I'll go arrange for that stallion of ours to get married!" And this is exactly what he did. He went from village to village, and he brought a bride for his son. She was not much, just enough so that she would not look into somebody else's yard. And it went on like that for a while; the girls in the village, those of marriageable age, all married neighbors (except for two, who are still single), and our seed gets lost. That summer was long, and the evenings were perfect, as if ordered that way: not too dark, not too bright, just as much light as you get from the moon, as much shadow as you get from the cloud. Why it happened that way, maybe the Mayor was the only one who did not understand, but he went to get her off (everybody knew that: if he did not do it, nobody would; and he did not, anyway). So he went there himself. He dressed up, he took his stick, as a sign of his mayoral authority; he holds it proudly in his hand, and he prepares his speech as he walks: a beautiful speech for our people, and some rebuke for the Gypsies. He thought of starting this way: "My dear brothers!" No, that's not good. The Gypsies will think he means them too. He has to separate them. The chaff from the wheat. Right. He should start like this: "Split, separate, dear brothers, like wheat from this black chaff!" He burned with the desire to draw that invisible line again, for everyone to know where the Gypsy slum ended and where what is ours began, and for Gypsies not to have the guts to come over here without some special business, except for holidays when they came begging; let them hatch there, eat dead animals, so our boys will get disgusted with their large skirts, their naked legs, and their naked breasts. What he would have liked the most was to keep on walking on the brown road, so people would see how determined and fearless he was, how nobody dares and nobody can do anything against him, but dogs are already barking, and noise is heard from there, and he thinks maybe they will smell him out and scatter. Just as well, he will come back this way, and now he will go around, through the fields. As he was stealthily going through the ditch, unexpectedly, a shadow slipped. He cowered, watching: something is running barefoot through the grass; rustling. He pricked his years and he rushed to that place. Suddenly, something black, with red roses, flashed before his eyes. He jumped out of the ditch, he sank into the night, and he crawled cautiously, thinking: Wait, I'll get you, whoever you are! And I'll show you what it means to defile this place, where our ancestors had their hearths and taught their children to honor honesty! And he kept crawling, chasing what he had seen. And when he felt some wind, a scent of youth, of madness, of dissolution suddenly struck him. He jumped, and that something rolled like a ball. One more leap – and he did not even touch it. With the third, he began to run like crazy, and what was ahead was twisting and laughing, oh! How it was laughing! It jumped to the left, it jumped to the right, it twisted powerfully you could say: down, to the waist – spear, from waist down – a fluttering flag. He jumped to catch it, but the laughter – behind a bush, then behind another. The doe was not his equal. And she was twisting, and running in the empty field, and she is already not a fluttering flag from waist down, anymore, she is a spear, and he is a flag chasing her, and already not a flag, but the skirt behind. Where did she hide? Silence. Everything was dark, from heaven to earth. Could it be that, being black, she got lost in the black web? He smells, he watches. And suddenly, a giggle under his nose, and the lightning of two rows of pearls. And between her teeth, she is biting a couch grass. The next day people went to work and the mayor was in a thorny bush. By the road. People saw he was in trouble, nobody asked him anything, not then, not later. He stopped offering explanations and advice to people. And when he got tired with women complaining, he cut their speech, as if in anger: "The town-hall takes care of the commune's stallions, bulls, and boars. That's all I needed, to watch over your men, too!" And what proved to be invincible and indomitable became stronger, became free. Single men hang around in the street corner, and here comes Raica, our little brunette peasant girl, with another girl nobody knew. "Where is your guest from?" "Whoever is a man doesn't ask where she comes from, he asks why she came here," Raica says, and lets out dense smoke circles. Then something like a price list was established, and both parties insisted that discounts be all right. The men, when they went there, would take something under their arms: ham, or a chicken, or bread, or a bag of flour, or, when evening was coming, they would catch a goose in the field. And, that fall, when goslings were old enough to be killed and eaten, every evening one or two housewives would look for their geese in the field, maybe they got lost, or stayed there, or maybe they got scared of something! But they would only look as far as the ditch, they did not have the guts to go any further, because, from then on, there was a foul smell of sweat, seeds, and goose food. Everybody knew: if it stepped over there, it did not get out alive, and if you stepped over there, you would find one of your men. "He doesn't have to bring me anything. If he did, he gave it to the old ones. I can catch a goose, but I don't need any. All I need is men to love. Love is my dinner. And you, why are you angry? I don't take from you by force! They come because they want to," the beautiful Creole boasted provocatively. And Raica separated the boys from the girls at the hora dance, saying: "Let him spend his days with the girl he spends his nights with!" I have no idea how it ended, because I left the village for a long time. It seems there was heavy fighting. And when I came back, I found everything at peace. Very tranquil. The town-hall door was locked, the windows had no glass; grass invaded the streets, houses in corners are collapsing, or already down. There is no mayor in the village now, there is no casino, no nursing home for the old. No noise, no voices, no roosters. No boys, no girls. The train does not stop in the station anymore. Everything is gray, old men and women. I realized this at one glance. But I want to see what happened to the densely populated slum, where everything got fulfilled in a moment of desire, right then, entirely, and still the longing was never over, it rolled down in waves, from all sides, coming, and here it had no delta, it was like a geyser springing out in foam. I went there and I saw: it had disappeared. Entirely. The field is in its place, and the dense couch grass has covered it. I walk through the village. Nobody says hello, nobody answers when I say hello. Everybody is busy. Except by the end of the road, an old man talks to me. I go in. He has no furniture. In the middle of the room – a coffin. He says he bought it to have it just in case, if only he did not need it! He laughs: he found the appropriate size, and he knows he is not going to grow anymore, why not buy it?! He sleeps in it at night, he covers it with the lid during the day, and he uses it as chair and table. "This furniture is very functional," he says. "Their children buy it for some people. Owing to functionality. Sit down, brother, let's talk. Where are you from?" I tell him what is what. "Well, me and your granddad used to be friends when we were young, and we spent a lot of time together. I know your grandma, too. And your dad. And your uncle Pera. And your uncle Sava. And your aunt. And I know you, too, since you were born. Your dad out at war, and me and your granddad came by wagon from Ciacova, from the fair, and we saw pampers on the fence! Your granddad grabbed the barrel of plum brandy and we called neighbor Rada, then Svetislav, then Svetozar, then Pavle, then-" When he began the list of all those names, I thought he would never finish, and I knew all that already, from my grandfather. I dared interrupt: "The whole village has changed, but the Gypsy slum is changed completely. It was a real anthill: their people, our people-" Either because my words urged him, or because he followed a thought of his own and some inner need, he continued, without blinking, and without looking at me: "Well, me and your granddad were such good friends. Since we were little kids. We grew up to be young men together. In those times, there were three Gypsy sisters in the village, Ravosija's daughters, you know Ravosija, they were beautiful, each more beautiful than the next. Then, there were old man Stevan's girls – Mira and Olga. And here, Zdrnga – you remember old Zdrnga, at the saloon; drummers with singing girls came to see him, they called those girls artists. Well what else can I tell you?" He began to think, he took the bottle, took a gulp, and handed it to me. I took some. I still do not remember what I drank. I remember his story, though, word by word. "Those three, Ravosija's daughters, Kumrija, and Nerandza, and Sara. Sara, you remember Sara, a hot Gypsy girl, very tender. All the old teachers were at war – the Hungarian war, and in this village young female teachers took care of the school. The village was full of girls, and no young men. It was just us, the teenage boys, and a young teacher, his name was Milan. Milan Vojlovic. You don't know Vojlovic. Your granddad knew him well. Sara was the way I told you: hot and tender, she wore a starched dress, with embroidery on her chest, and she'd pass by the school all the time. She'd go to the corner, and come back. When Milan saw that, he said 'Children, until tomorrow, learn the multiplication table by four,' and he sent the kids home, he tied his tie, and he went straight to the Pardani road. And Sara had gone somewhere else, she pretended, to the Slatinas. So this is how she later had Pantelija, everybody calls him Pantelija the Gypsy, although he is a merchant. You know Pantelija. He is Vojlovic's son. Milan recognizes him as his son, and he was kind to Sara, too. This is why his whole family is blaming him. His aunt spat him in the face, and his father, because of this more than anything else, sold the house, and they went away, wherever they went, and they took Milan with them. Is he still alive, I wonder? Maybe he is." "Did you say Sara pretended to go somewhere else, to the Slatinas," I opened my mouth. He glanced at me contemptuously. "What do you know! Where you were, they get old fast. And you've been an old man for a long time, this is why you don't know. Your granddad knew this well. Old age doesn't come with years, it comes from too much knowledge and certitude. Youth means flexibility, it means something unexpected and unpredicted. Longing takes you to the end of the world, and it calls you back from there. And everything that should be one way, according to rules and reason, can be totally different in love. Love awakens death to life, how couldn't it blend two roads together?! Whoever has love doesn't starve, doesn't feel thirsty, doesn't miss anything, everything is perfect. Love can't be hidden, but it hides, it takes under its wing, as it took them then. For two days and two nights they belonged to each other, they were everything; they didn't need anything, from anywhere. And this is how love welcomed them, that nobody saw them, although it was a summer day, and the whole village was in the fields. A teacher, Eufemija, an old maid, rented a carriage, because she was so envious, and she drove around the field, up and down, to find them, but she couldn't. Only two days later – there they were! Milan coming from the Pardani Bridge, Sara, from the Slatinas. His clothes were ironed properly, he was wearing his tie, her skirt was starched. What do you know!" Indeed, I had not known. The stars guided me, when I started on the Main Road, by the Little Cemetery. Suddenly, I hear: "Hello!" Sara! Old Sara, the Gypsy! It was only now that I understood why she whispered so softly, so tenderly, so warmly: "Dear little schoolboy!" I turned my head. I shook all over. Nothing but skin and bones. She stood by a bush, smiling, and she examined me. Except she was not that short, dirty, old woman, with large hips, that I still remembered since the time she begged at our door. There she was, tall, plump, young. Her white dress had embroidery on her chest.

English version by Monica VOICULESCU

by Stevan Bugarski