The Wild Wine Gallery

excerpt Bunthe had thought it appropriate to put up their two unexpected guests from Bucharest with Father Calist. The villagers were saying they had got lucky. The weather was beautiful, spring was coming. The sun shone as if it was already April. The wildflowers that thrive in the ancient land of Dobruja, rich in the ashes of glorious heroes, were starting to grow again. Calist, the leader of the Lipovans, owned a beautiful and comfortable house, filled with ancient artefacts such as pieces of ceramics, clay dolls, shreds of marble covered in old markings weathered by time or covered in moss. He was also an amateur archaeologist, spending his days wandering around, looking for artefacts that the old land of Dobruja generously revealed at the lightest touch of a spade. The old cavalry man that had brought them there had been careful to add that Father Calist's house was an appropriate intellectual environment for the two newcomers. In that part of the world, only intelligent and meaningful conversation could chase away the all-encompassing silence and the darkness of the long nights – provided, of course, one was willing to say no to the basamac, the home-made liquor the locals used to drink themselves senseless. Aurica followed Father Calist around all day long, digging alongside him and learning much about the things that the Lipovans believed in; one such belief was that according to their calendars, the Lipovans were younger than the rest of mankind by about two weeks, and thus two weeks closer to the moment when the world was created because of their decision not to give up on the old way of scoring time, which, according to astronomical calculations, was not accurate anymore. "If you keep this up, in ten thousand years' time your summer will fall in midwinter and we won't be able to catch up on you!" Aurica had joked, southern-fashion. To which Father Calist had replied in earnest that only God could tell when winter or summer were to come. Poor drifters! Between unearthing one piece of ancient scrap and another – which he gathered in a bag made from a piece of old green fishing net – Father Calist told Aurica all about the history of the Lipovans. It had all begun in 1650, when the Orthodox Patriarch Nikon, by command of the Russian Tsar Aleksey Mikhailovich, had decided to alter in their prayer books a date which they usually celebrated by reading out loud the psalms about the flight from Egypt. The Lipovans opposed the new rules and fled the country. Their resistance was drowned in fire and blood. Their religious services still followed ancient rituals; they were primitive, took place after midnight, and lasted until dawn, invoking the pagan God of the ancient peoples. "Why didn't you agree to stay where you were and take your place in the new order, since you were so vastly outnumbered?" the pragmatic Aurica had asked. Father Calist had shaken his head, waving his hand in front of his face as if something was obstructing his sight, and had said nothing. The other man had realised that this was his most decisive way of denying something. Emperor Peter the Great had dealt them the strongest blow. The heretics had wandered from place to place, and were eventually pushed all the way to the upper end of the Danube Delta, where they were stopped by the wall of thatch whose colour resembled that of their own beards. They didn't know which way to go – left or right: Peri-leva, Peri-prava?... Their hesitation gave the name of their first two new villages; but they still weren't safe from the long arm of religious persecution, so they travelled down towards the shores of the sea, mother to all those forced to leave their native lands. Jurilofca, the name of their village, was thus revealed to come from the ancient word "Jlirita", which actually meant "sadness", unless of course the village had not been named in honour of Jurba, a wise old leader of their tribe. They weren't at all sure why they were called "Lipovans", either. Could it come from "liubov", the Russian word for love? Or perhaps they were named after Lipa, the name of the lime-tree grove where their kin had taken refuge in the country of Bucovina, which was then part of the Austrian Empire. When asked, the locals would tilt their heads in the direction of the groves they had taken refuge in and say: "Lipovans? You mean those bearded fellows who live in the lime-tree grove?" As one could easily see for himself, their church, which had been built in 1895, still smelt of hay and dried lime-tree leaves from which they made their medicines. But even this temple of sorts didn't even come close to anyone's idea of a place of worship. Rather, it resembled a banquet hall. Aurica and Chiril had never before seen such a church. It was lavishly adorned with paper streamers, fairy lights dyed in jarring colours, pink, blue and white paper flowers, small wooden stools and colourful cushions, embroideries made from fishing thread; fresh linen of the sort one might have seen in any of the locals' houses, lined the icons in which the saints had a tired, wary air; all of this put you in mind of the dowry of some maid who was on the point of getting married. When Bunthe, who cared nothing for religion, first set foot in the church, he claimed its cosy, inviting atmosphere put him in mind of parties and celebrations, much like the mess-hall of a small country town – the obsession of a single man, destined to be alone and unable to set up his own home. The day he had arrived in the village, the first thing to capture his attention had been this big, garishly painted church of theirs. His guests had shared his opinion: the dome was painted a clear, forget-me-not blue, the walls were bright yellow and the cornices were either red or lime green; the doors and windows were painted dark yellow, with a pattern of blue fish depicted with their mouths wide open, predictably as all fish must look like when they cannot breathe. Father Calist had talked Aurica through the rituals of their cult, things to which he would later and very cleverly refer to as "the heresy of heretics" or "the rogues who had broken away from the rogues"; by this he meant an older group of worshippers, who were even closer to nature than that part of the group that still followed religious custom. They were those who used to celebrate the so-called "bonding of the blood", when on a certain day and for the purpose of giving strength to the community, men and women blindly and randomly became man and wife, and only then did they see themselves as worthy of redemption. The editor had been horrified to learn that at certain phases of the moon, the random matings took place in the local graveyard, among the tombs, as the dead also had to witness this complete obliteration of individual identity. At this point, Father Calist had crossed himself and added that this devilish rite had long been banned. He admitted, however, that some remnants of these absurd rites still endured. One such custom was known as "the women's judgement", and had sent chills down Aurica's spine. At a certain time during mass, one woman (for this can only happen to women, who still retain in their strangely twisted nature a vivid image of man's sinful ancestry) starts to bark and moan and cry out and twist madly on the floor, to remind everyone that the devil may take on the shape of all living creatures from which man eventually came forth. "Zdielno!" everybody cries, leaping aside and watching the madly twisting shape – "she has been "touched", bewitched, possessed by evil spirits!" What would then happen – but this, Father Calist pointed out, happened before the War – was that the priest came forth chanting, burning incense and holding his holy prayer book and he stepped over the screaming woman, literally stepping on her, pressing one foot gently against her body as he passed. Their archbishop had been present on one such occasion; he was a wealthy man, who owned a car and many bee hives. One woman whose mind had been taken away had suddenly become still and had awakened as if her entire life so far had been nothing but a bad dream. What Aurica – who was very fond of eating – had liked best was the hall next to the church where the village feasts were held. It was a large wooden room painted bottle green, with beautifully crafted wooden archways and a long wooden table which stretched all the way to the rear wall, on which hung the icon of the patron saint called Saint Paraschieva – custom dictated the patron saint be a woman. The floor held three shallow pits set in a cement platform, edges lined with stone; they would be filled with burning logs and on top of them were set the cauldrons in which food was being cooked for the whole village. The Lipovans had been made outcasts, and this very thing that was supposed to divide them and keep them apart had made them all come together as one. "Theirs is a past filled with fire and terror, and this kind of past, my dear friends, is hard to forget, and luckily so! For whoever forgets his past is doomed to relieve it… Or so, I think, said Goethe," the district prosecutor had exclaimed that very day, to everyone's surprise, as he ate the fish broth made in the three large cauldrons. He had arrived to investigate a murder that had shattered the peace of the village. The roots of this murder ran deep in the strange world of the Lipovans; in time, it had gained strength from the fear and violence that unconsciously poisoned their minds and finally burst like an infected wound. These people had come together under the strain of persecution and inflicted among themselves the same pains they had once been forced to endure. During the wake, the prosecutor had many more interesting things to say: for instance, he touched upon the subject of the vividly painted church, which everyone else found silly and ludicrous. Well, they were wrong: these people loved life, and had had enough of convention and rules, doctor Manitiu said, and so they had built their church more as a peaceful gathering place, almost like a banquet hall, fit only for parties and decorated with streamers and fairy lights and that sort of frivolous decorations. Only the saints seemed to remember some of their ancient beliefs – but they looked wary and tired, locked away in their heavy frames that resembled silver coffins. Eminescu, Bucharest, 1976

by Constantin Ţoiu (b. 1923)