The Russian Woman

excerpt The more we drew near the little hamlet, the more I felt in my heart the finger of a tremor stirring up the layers of tranquility. And although I tried to shake off this unwanted mood, my eyes were looking round stealthily, for the hillock we would climb, on which some straight poplars and several weeping willows hid the entrance to that unknown human settlement. Looking there, one could tell why the nameless little hamlet was on no map; it was because a smoothly curved rampart, almost indistinguishable, sprinkled with groves, protected it from any neighboring contact. When you climbed on the slight hillock, you were expecting to reach a plateau, as you could see from your vantage point the poplars of the back wall. Only up, on the round smooth ridge, did you realize that the plateau was hollow, and that at the bottom of the green clay depression, separated by an alleyway in the shape of a boomerang, the nearly twenty – maybe even fewer – small whitewashed clay houses barely rose from the ground. It was only Niculina's house, a little better-off, on the one side, and another two, on the other side, which made up the shorter edge of the boomerang. Here, the groove was slightly raised and it was surprising that the roof of Balan's house was not visible from outside because of the round protective hillock. Mariuca's hut was halfway on the long side of the alley, which went deeply under the walls of the depression, so that the entry to, and the exit from, the hamlet was only possible at the bend of the boomerang where we came from, and everybody else, or beyond the precincts of Balan's courtyard, where the ground was smooth and slightly inclined. In view of these topographic considerations, I thought I could appease the rummaging nail of tormenting curiosity, which grew inside me as we approached the bend of the boomerang; will the indomitable, devil-like-tormenting woman be waiting for me again, there, under the tresses of the last willow? My eyes pierced the darkness anxiously, towards the foot of the willow with the fallen branches; at first, I felt a startle of despair, as I couldn't make out anything moving there, but immediately after, an effusion of great satisfaction overcame me. Niculina was one and the same with the lumpy body of the tree. She was indeed one with the willow tree, a long bough in her hand, and when I drew near, she looked down, starting to tear off the longish leaves, one by one. Her eyes didn't look up at me invitingly, as before, and neither did her soft laughter whistle. I let Marinescu get ahead, and I dismounted near her. But when I reached beside her, she tore herself away angrily and left; I followed her, my horse on the bridle rein. She kept walking, giving no answer to my questions. When we reached Serghie Balan's house, she walked through the door, which she then closed, asking me, as one would ask a stranger: "What do you want?"Although the pangs of ambition ceaselessly nettled me, I did not get on the horse and start trotting away firmly, even if a whimsical thought was telling me to do this again. I replied, though, friskily:"Excuse me, is this where Serghie Balan lives?""Yes, it is," she answered, as if brimming with malice. "And he has been away for two weeks already," she added this time, shaking her head, as if in reprimand."Has he been missing for two weeks?" I wondered jokingly. "For two weeks," she corroborated, holding the gate with one hand and looking away through the planks."But do you know Niculina, his wife?" I asked her laughing. "A tall woman, with hair like the night… And black eyes, like brand… Which burn you, just like brand…""I know her," she replied, "she's a silly bad woman, for she talks to strangers through planks and around stiles when her husband is not home.""Well… if her husband stays with her only for three days and then leaves for a month… He's not head over heels for her either…""It never happened to him to stay only for three days," she said in a hissing voice, shaking her head proudly. "Otherwise, he wouldn't find her when he got home…"I can't tell for sure, but it seemed to me that Niculina bit her lips then and her eyes moved in a strange way. But I didn't understand why. She then laughed with gauche dalliance and changed the subject quickly:"What do you want?" "I want you to open the gate…""But don't you have hands?" And giggling suddenly, she vanished at the back of the yard.I tethered my horse near the stairs that led to the open porch. It wasn't easy for me with Pafnute. Before, when I dropped by this place, I left it with the caretaker who was around. Now, I was looking irresolutely towards the numerous outbuildings of this courtyard – stable, stall, storehouse, coops, kennels, none of which gave me the impression of being used by the respective owners. I was about to shout for Niculina to ask her, when I was gently grabbed by the hand: Niculina was beside me, and was looking at me and smiling.I let her lead me: we crossed the yard, at the back of which she opened a small plank gate. We entered a sort of square garden, with traces of seed beds, assailed by big weeds, and with a huge walnut tree in a corner, giving out through its foliage, still untouched by any yellow spots, the distinctive pungent smell of its robust sap. Through the horizontally disposed planks that fenced it, Niculina found another small gate. We stepped out on a sort of knoll that became rounded so smoothly that you might have thought it was an open field. Several more modest walnut trees raised their midget forms from the hay field. Further on, however, the knoll went down quickly, and steeply, towards the Dniester river meadow. Near a softer slope, well hidden from the eyes of the people downhill by weeds and clay crumbles, a huge willow tree let its thick intertwinement of branches hang so low that, around its hollow trunk, a sort of tunnel opened up. There, Niculina urged me to tie my horse; it had enough grass to graze under the wide tilt of the willow. And on the steep path, admirably concealed by shrubs and brushwood, which went down, she advised me to descend whenever she told me to bring my horse there. But she asked me to swear that I would never climb that way and as for descending, I would never do it without her consent. From downhill, crossing the field, I could easily take a detour using the scraps of road – for, proper roads in those parts were impossible to find – on which I walked in and out of the nameless hamlet. Indeed, one could discern, at the back, the sinuous band of the Dniester's meadows, stamped out here and there: at the bizarre winding at the middle, was my post. I told this to Niculina and she nodded her head, with full knowledge of the matter. I suggested that we should keep Pafnute company under the marvelous bower. But she refused to go that far from the house. "Serghie might come," she explained. "How can I hear, and where do I tell him I was?"We walked shoulder to shoulder; I put my arm around her waist and she did the same. I drew her near and kissed her for a long time, almost stifling her, pressing my chest against her firm breast. But she managed to let go of my grip with soft and amiable gestures, which contrasted so much with the firmness of her flesh, with the warm swiftness of her blood that was throbbing so hard in her throat that it seemed to me I could hear it, and especially with her furtive deft modulations from before, when she snatched herself from my tightest embrace, with snake-like undulations. This first moment of surrendering incited me even more, but she told me sober-mindedly, in a whisper, to calm down, and dragged me by the hand up to the corral of the square garden. We stopped under the walnut tree with the pungent smell."Let's stay here," she whispered. "If he comes, I will hear the gate and, when he comes into the house, I will sneak in from behind, as if I have just come from the yard… And you go downhill, with your horse…""But what if he comes from this direction?" I asked her. "And what if Pafnute betrays me…" She answered promptly, as if she had been weighing this for long:"Not to worry… you just have to do as I said… otherwise… we'll be in big… trouble… you know…"It seemed to me that she wanted to say something else than trouble. She even frowned, as if surprised by a sudden unpleasant thought which she had not foreseen. But she shook it off quickly and lay on the ground invitingly, her arms upwards, laughing softly, with her alluring laughter. Her breasts rose and seemed to rub one against the other, in the slothful lecherous atmosphere. But these oaths and reticence, together with her desistence from bringing me inside, with her carefulness to show me a hiding place for Pafnute and a way to go down quickly, overlapped in my mind with that strange answer she gave me just now, that her husband had been missing for two weeks. When did he leave, then? For, almost two weeks ago, she received me at her place, so as to drive me crazy and to resist my unfettered insistencies with such firmness. When was her husband home, when did he come? Only for a night or two… And then, why shouldn't he come in a roundabout way, through the back, as a man who leaves a wife like her alone, for such a long time, would be fully entitled? I believed Niculina was judging things the wrong way, but I didn't even consider ruining her completely remarkable mood on that wonderful evening with such controversies. For now, Niculina, with her hands clasped above the head, her arms naked from the fall of the loose sleeves of her grey dressing gown, her chest arched forward, tossed about in a strange dance, a dance of stillness, in which only the sparkle of her eyes and her soft laughter participated. A calm silent dance, which allowed me to show my delight in a low trembling voice, with my quivering arms stretched out. Yet, she drew back step by step, in the same position, and her eyes and soft laughter wanted to show me how little she cared about my ephemeral vows. But those eyes stared at me in the night, with their dark glow, and as I followed them hypnotically I felt my dire yearning, so many times deceived, struggling frantically, like a flame in the wind, in a whirl of despair and abandonment. Suddenly Niculina, wishing to elude my most desperate moves, knelt down, her arms above the head all the time, as when performing a new figure of the same ritualistic dance. When I collapsed over her, I didn't, of course, imagine I would catch her; I knew from our previous encounters that the fall on the knees was one of her most dexterous defense moves. But although she had at her disposal the second she needed to get away – I saw this clearly, very clearly – Niculina, instead of rising and moving aside, with a sway of the shoulders, as she would do, lay on the ground and unfolded her arms, so as to cross them over my back.Then I suddenly felt the pungent aroma of the walnut tree, and in the moments of rollover that followed I saw the stars glittering with their regular throb, so powerfully, as if they were dancing at the bottom of an immense tambourine which was frantically set in motion above the infinite by a crazy titan. Niculina's forms, with fine steel-like callousness and agility, gave me unimaginable joys; yet, my long embrace overwhelmed her completely and turned her from a wild deer into an incredibly gentle cat. And the walnut was exhilarating. I was even expecting Pafnute to celebrate my victory by a triumphal neighing, from his cave of weeping branches. But Pafnute, who obviously felt, with his sharp smell, my endless delight, was, above all, a discreet horse, destined for a cause which he believed superior, and, as a true soldier, he preferred to keep completely quiet. As I was lying in the thick grass, next to Niculina, under the silky rustle tilt of the walnut crown, it seemed to me as if we were both in a sedan chair, which swung in celestial realms. And only when I thought of this, in a moment of respite of my consumed passion, I remembered Niculina's precautions, the oaths she had asked me to repeat, about how I would not descend on the brushwood path without her consent, the twinkling little window from the room where she had received me until then, and which seemed to stare at me from somewhere in the darkness, like a white eye. The outburst of love lasted long, however, and no unexpected dagger was thrust in my back, coming out from the grass and rising vengefully above the pleasure game of our convulsions. And neither did it come out the next evening, nor the evenings that followed, for, starting from then, night after night, I came to taste with unprecedented greed the aroma wonder of the patriarchal walnut tree. And Niculina always showed gratitude for my prolonged and exquisite embrace by muffled surprise screams, by avalanches of hysterical passion, by tacit tributes of blind submission, by the excessively long moments of morning separations, by the trembling, faint and fearful tone with which she inquired about the time of our next day meeting. Hence, I became extremely curious to meet Serghie Balan in the flesh, the man of which, through bizarre associations of ideas, I had been afraid on several occasions. This tiring folly lasted for three weeks, and during all this time the weather was fine. The first leaves, struck with the paleness of death landed on our strained backs, and from time to time, a stray fruit would fall nearby with a menacing thud. But we cared for nothing. The prose of Gib (Gheorghe) Mihăescu (1894-1935) was described as obsessional, and both novels presented here, The Russian Woman (1933), banned during the communist regime, and Donna Alba (1935) confirm it: to the passionate reader of Russian literature – the author and Lieutenant Ragaiac alike, a "Madame Bovary"-like hero (Ion Simuţ) – the feminine ideal is the mysterious, inaccessible woman expected to appear – not without posing untold dangers – from the mist of the Russian steppe; ironically, in the background there is a barrack crowd hunting for trivial sex in a dispiriting world. Donna Alba, the wife of an aristocrat, is yet another inaccessible woman that must be brutally conquered by an eroticized hero, a young lawyer who blackmails her.

by Gib Mihăescu (1894-1935)