The Place Where Nothing Happened

excerpt Loneliness tightened up around Daria Ortac. She felt isolated from the world and saddened to death. The wind was about to start splashing scarce drops into the windows. It was a sunset wind, irregularly enveloping, stirring up echoes of sound and human voices.Wrapped up in her book, Mrs. Ortac withdrew from the wind, then she turned back, listening to its noise while staring at random.Eventually, she heard two slight knocks on the window. She started, briskly moving from her place and getting closer to the window. The sound repeated itself. She hesitated whether to take her shawl or not. But the garment covered her enough, up to her chin and down to her wrist. It was a strategic coat. She stealthily opened the door, went to the other exit, the one to the street, and opened it. The creature she came back with followed her soundlessly into the room, head first, as if shadowing her.It was a slender, scraggy, pale looking young man. His mouth was more like a line with closely pressed lips. Over the sharp nose, the right eye had a crooked, interior gaze. It was a blue, sparkless eye, which nevertheless seemed livelier than the normal one. He took his rain-soaked hat off, uncovering a moist hair glued to his temples and forehead."Take a seat, Emil," Daria said. "Would you care for something to eat?""I'm not hungry," the young man answered in a weak voice, his eyes closing with fatigue. "I noticed your absence from the doctor's.""Today is Wednesday, Emil. I knew that you used to come on Thursdays. Mrs. Frosa stopped by and she didn't tell me anything.""She didn't because I got there after her. I only found the doctor in and I told him that I was having my old anxieties and bad dreams again. The doctor said that if I happened to dream of roaches, I should come immediately.""Then it's a good thing you came.""Yes. He gave me the medicine. I was with him for two hours, during which I was waiting for you. Then I went out and thought of going to Adancata; but it was raining. I only went to the mill down the river. As you know, I'm a good friend of the miller.""I know, Emil."Mrs. Ortac spoke to him in a melodious voice, as if he had been a child. The young man's mouth stretched out in a silent laughter, and then his fair, downy beard shone in the lamp light."He put me up when I returned this fall. He has known me for a long time, ever since he used to give me his raft, so that I could go to the isles. He's a cunning man, and I sent him out to find out if you were alive. It was he who told me that you were getting married, and then I hid away.""I know, Emil, you've told me. You'd better shown yourself then."He shook his head and made a sign with his right forefinger, without looking at her. He had his own ideas. And he was in a talkative mood, after long hours of unhealthy silence."When I returned, it was as if the summer days had come back over the pond. I was as happy as I used to be when I was running away from home. When I was beaten up, I used to rise from the dead and run to the old miller. From there on, I went to Adancata, to my grandparents, but they took no joy in seeing me. The old man still thinks we should go to court.""Against whom?""Against him," Emil whispered, emphasizing the last word.Mrs. Ortac sighed."So it was a lovely weather when I got there," the sick man went on. "I made myself angling rods, took the raft and went to the isles. I have a place of my own, that nobody knows about there. I put my pike rod in a corner, among the reed plots, and it doesn't take long until the pike comes, it enters through the big gates and comes right to the ring of my hook. I always catch a pike for the miller to enjoy there. He sells it to buy booze.""What gates, Emil? What gates are you talking about?""I'm talking of what is there. Don't you know that I've seen what really lies there, when I stood there gazing deep into the pond? You can see the pillars of the gates there, when the water is still, and then the walls. Between the pillars of those gates there's plenty of space and light. One can get in and out of the other realm through there.""It's the reflection of the reed, Emil."He pitifully turned his sidelong glance to Daria's shoe and made his finger sign."You listen to me. The ember geese go there, too, when they disappear from the water surface. So, if I dive to the dead and reach the other side, I'm in a happy place.""Have you thought of that?""Yes, I have, when I was angling on the isles."Daria sighed and caressed his forehead, arranging his hair with her fingers."I have to tell you why I've come," the boy started again. "When I was going down to the pond, at the corner of the city hall alley, I met him.""Who?""Him. I thought he wouldn't know me, but he did. Do you know how he looked at me, Daria? Daggers. The way he used to in the old times. But I don't fear him anymore now. I laughed and turned down a different alley. He followed me. I stopped and told him: "don't you follow me." Then he left me alone. I went towards the mill; then I turned back to tell you about it.""Didn't he say anything?""Yes, he did. He said I was a curse on his life. I was glad to hear that. He's afraid of me because I embarrass him. Now I've left him alone, as you told me to. But, although I've been keeping a low profile, he knows now.""That's OK; you'll hide for a week at Adancata.""What about the medicine?""I'll send it there.""But the old man says we should take him to court.""Grandpa should give it a rest until you get better.""If you say so, I'll listen to you, but only till it's time."Suddenly a door banged, as if pushed open either by a man's hand, or the wind. It was slammed by the wind. The man had left it open. Furtively, the same man had tiptoed to his wife's room and pricked up his ears. Then he had turned on the spot, looking for something. When he returned, he slammed the outer door and, right after that, he entered the room where he had heard whispers.He screamed, his face all red, and stretched out the weapon. Frightened to death, the sick man turned, as if he had wanted to crawl into a hiding place. With a weak shriek, his sister covered him with her hands."He's my brother," she then sighed, letting her arms drop with infinite sadness.Ortac was confused and ridiculous. He was looking for a spot where he could drop the weapon. Laughing, he gave it to Emil, who powerlessly lapsed on the sofa, in the middle of a fit, with foam suds at his mouth. XI There are flowers of waste and shadow that suddenly burst into the light, and have a blossoming time of their own. Mr. Lai Cantacuzin stood as an amazed witness of this truth when Mrs. Ortac made her appearance.She had probably been late on purpose, lingering in front of the mirrors, while the major was nibbling on his moustache. He had been calculating how long it would take for a large enough number of guests to gather in the rooms of the old mansion that now functioned as the district prefect's office. Of course, some of his friends had to get there first. The military music orchestra had started its preparation and murmur. Mrs. Argintar was just making her entrance, at the general's arm, distributing smiles. Suddenly, Mr. Lai felt a sweet pinch in his heart. He did not possess a different adjective to translate his impression. Mrs. Ortac was wearing a silver gray dress, with a carnation beneath the left shoulder, where the whiteness of her breast began. But that distinctive something about her was neither due to her outfit, nor to the hair style, nor to the graceful height she had acquired through a shoe artifice, but to the awareness of the fact that this was her moment. Eternity had conspired to grant it to her; it could be noticed in the vague twinkle of her eye that could not decide to stop on anyone. It slipped along Mr. Lai as well, so he couldn't bow, and he didn't dare greet her either. But, before passing to another lounge, she had turned for a moment those wonderful eyes enlarged by shadowy circles. They were shrewd eyes, for they were looking for him without giving the impression of doing so.Cantacuzin smiled and left his place to follow her.He was forced to hesitate and be late, as Mr. Vasilescu Mazu was greeting him with repeated bows. He had put on the same tailcoat he was wearing in the photo at home, and with his long finger he was pushing Mrs. Amalia, who wore her medieval princess earrings, to his left. Mr. Lai hurried to say something nice to them and found himself in front of Mrs. Barboni."Aren't you by any chance looking for your student, my prince?" Mrs. Frosa smiled. "She has just entered with us; she left her mantilla in the doctor's office. There's our refuge when we have headaches.""I've seen Mrs. Ortac," Cantacuzin answered. "She didn't seem to be in need of a refuge.""Oh, so you've noticed, too? Her apparition was quite sensational. Mazu's wife hurried into a different lounge. Her husband is watching out for fear she may faint."Dr. Rudi was laughing with his entire freckled face. Mr. Lai thought it right that he should smile, too.He moved away. The orchestra was just beginning the first waltz. A collection of whispers passed him by. The general had been bowing to Mrs. Ortac, requesting a dance. She had accepted, taking his arm and allowing him to lead her for a little while. The general stopped in the exact same spot where they had started from and bowed again, his ankles closing together, while he was kissing her hand. She had sat on the chair, agitating her fan. Heavily ornamented fans and tail dresses were quite fashionable towards the end of that century.Mr. Lai thought it would be a good strategy for him to approach Aglae Argintar. He didn't dance. He believed that to be one of his distinctive features. He waited until the first lieutenant came to request his partner, and then followed his plan to solve the mystery that made the ostrich feathers move so swiftly. Half of a powdered face and an eye were waiting for him there."I bow to the most gentle being," he whispered so that only one little ear could hear him."Oh, my teacher?" Mrs. Ortac wondered."Yes, your teacher, sad that he could not greet you any sooner.""I'm glad to see him, even if it is later," Mrs. Ortac twittered."Don't be surprised if I tell you I've been entangled in a real pursuit.""I believe you. It is a hunting habit.""Why are you being mean?""Do you think I'm mean?""I do. Anyhow, the hunter has turned into a victim.""Mr. Cantacuzin, this is not the nature of things.""It would be no wonder if it were different."Mr. Lai's impression of this exchange of light words was not a favorable one. Elsewhere he might have said more serious things. He would have wanted to know why this friend, who had suddenly bloomed so splendidly, was constantly avoiding him. Life sometimes sets free such sacred miracles."I don't know what my teacher is thinking of," Mrs. Ortac said. "I assume he could ask me for an explanation. This isn't the place and, anyway, I should be the one to demand an explanation to begin with. Don't ask me, don't ask me," she answered Cantacuzin's gesture of impatience. "For the moment, I only have the time to thank you for the flowers. Were they by any chance funeral flowers?""How could you believe that?""I don't believe anything. I see an enemy of yours coming, meaning my dancing partner."Alexandru Marcush was arriving, skillfully advancing among chairs and dancers. Cantacuzin only needed a second to see the truth in the entire attitude of the newcomer. His approach emanated passionate bliss from inside of him, as if he were coming for a prey. He brought neither words, nor delights, but his young animal vitality. For the first time Lai Cantacuzin regretted that he couldn't perform small steps and ridiculous turns. This great reserve was placing him in a position of inferiority that time.Although he wanted to pierce him with his gaze, the approaching hunter didn't seem to care at all. He greeted him laughing happily, without even recognizing him, maybe, and bowed before Mrs. Ortac."Would you excuse me?" she gracefully addressed Mr. Lai.Marcush caught her in his arms and, at the first turn, she let her head rest on his right shoulder. Women have always been like that, the philosopher said to himself, looking away from what he no longer wished to behold. The words of these superficial creatures are often only symbols that can be interpreted in many ways. But, in the direction he had chosen, he discovered a different aspect of his concerns. There was a sudden sadness within him. From the doorframes of the lateral lounges, faces that had appeared out of the blue were observing the event with interest, astonishment and smiles. They were starting to debate it, offering immediate solutions. It was true that the doctor's nephew couldn't lead a passionless life, but so much harm could come out of that.Mrs. Frosa Barboni was watching with even more interest than others. She pulled the German by the hand towards herself and showed him the couple with an eye gesture. She didn't say anything for the moment. She only allowed one stifled exclamation to be heard: Hmm!Mr. Vasile Mazu was looking over her shoulder. He echoed her syllable."Did you say anything, Mr. Mazu?" the doctor's wife asked."No! My wife wanted to leave a few minutes ago. She had a headache.""Maybe because of the earrings," Doctor Rudi suggested."Oh, no," Mazu laughed. "Those are golden earrings with topazes, from her grandmother, Doctor. Now her headache is gone and she won't leave by any means.""I see," the doctor rejoiced."We can all see," Mr. Mazu said in a little nasal voice. "I think Ortac should be warned to defend his property, just like I should defend mine. He should pay his debts. I initiated action today.""You should follow him to the end of the world, master Vasile," the doctor advised him, "and sell whatever is left of him.""Do you think your advice is bad? It's not bad at all," Vasile Mazu answered in the same sweetened voice.And yet, Mrs. Frosa thought, that was the most beautiful couple one could have imagined. The other couples would stop one by one and become spectators. If it weren't offending to the prince, she would applaud herself, like the others. When Mrs.Ortac glided, in the last circle, in front of her, she saw her eyes lit by something new that gave her the right to worry.She pulled the doctor aside, in a free spot."You should know, my German friend, that the girl is capable of a foolish thing.""Everything's possible," the doctor mumbled."I see, Rudi, that you speak as wisely as always, and that you are about to let things follow their course; but I, just like my sister, Agata, sometimes feel like opposing this situation.""You're always right. Just leave the boy to be right for a change.""It's not about the boy, Rudi. It's about her. She may be waiting for enchanted palaces and, instead, she'll only find a decrepit yard. After passing by pasturing piglets and calves, she only has my sister to encounter. She could make a fuss and turn against the boy.""You know you're funny? Have you seen this in your coffee cup?""I've seen it in something else. Especially in her eyes. I've been on the watch for many days now.""OK, then do your duty. I'll have a look at the food. To be honest, I think you're imagining things and that nothing is about to happen. ""Have you seen her eyes? I'm talking about her eyes.""No. I know those of your nephew and that is enough for me."The doctor found Ortac near the table, in his usual company. He and Catarama had agreed on what the best wine was, and they hurried to offer Barboni a glass. Alexandru Marcush came, breathing hastily, to look for two cups of champagne. "Take it easier, my boy," the German whispered.The boy had the happy smile of his age and of the extraordinary moment he was experiencing. He received, on a small tin tray, the object of his wish and he withdrew rapidly. He offered Mrs. Ortac the cup that still had some foam and small bead whirlpools, then put the tray away and waited in ecstasy."We have to be alone for you to look at me this way," she said. "I'll be on the terrace, in the garden. Would you please get my mantilla from the doctor's office?""I'll be there in a second," he whispered happily."Be careful," Mrs. Ortac laughed at him.Once she had been left alone she looked around and understood she had to cover her exit. She would have wanted to know where Cantacuzin was, but she couldn't see him. Aglae Argintar came to greet her quite blissfully and took her arm. So Mrs. Argintar must have seen her floating in the arms of the most desirable male presence in that place and she must have applauded as well. Without giving up any of her hidden resentments, Daria smiled back and spoke gentle words to her and they both passed, arm in arm, to a different lounge. Everybody could take a breath. Five minutes later, Mrs. Ortac percolated to the terrace corner where Marcush was waiting impatiently."I thought you'd never come," he whispered.She quietly took his arm, then slowly let him go. She put on the mantilla, shivering.The late fall night was unusually gentle. The barren trees of the garden stood motionless in the moonlight. No one was around. Everything was like a wasteland. Only the fox-muzzled dog tiptoed among fallen leaves and stopped nearby, sniffing them and shining his fangs. Author of about 100 books, from historical novels to children's stories, Mihail Sadoveanu (1880-1961) remains one of the classics of Romanian literature, despite his late compromise with the communist regime. Many of his characters, some essentially natural, others utterly wild, have a hard time coming to terms with modern civilization. The Place Where Nothing Happened may be seen as a case of unhappy marriage (which Daria is forced into), aided and abetted by the parents' selfishness and Cantacuzin's aristocratic prejudice.

by Mihail Sadoveanu (1880-1961)