Vitoria Lipan

from The Hatchet I It is the mountain peasant's lot to earn his daily bread either with the axe or with the sheep hook. Those of them that work with the axe fell firs from the forest and take them to the Bistriţa; there they bind them together into rafts and float them down all the way to Galaţi, where their world ends. The more industrious set up sheepfolds up in the mountains and there they remain, with only God and their solitude for company, until days grow shorter. When winter draws near, they take their flocks down to the wider marshlands to stay until spring comes. Life is easier down there and it is there that she would have liked to live, too, only that it cannot be, for summers are too hot and, besides, the peasants from the mountains are firmly rooted to their place of origin, just like the firs. Nechifor Lipan had always proven skilled in shepherding. His sheepfolds were all well cared for and his men obedient. His shepherds knew more than tales, they knew the secret of curdled milk and of skin cheese. He would get letters and orders from afar, from market towns with strange names. To have them deciphered, he would take them to Father Dănilă, and then he would call at the tavern for a drink with peasants like himself, trusty companions for such affairs. No sooner did word spread up the Tarcău that tidings of money coming in had reached Lipan, than the gypsy fiddlers would crop up at the tavern, as if washed down by the river. The man would then come home late, but in the mood. His woman would reckon it best to put up an angry face. "The seven demons are going berserk in your head again," he would say with a laugh, stroking his thick, drooping moustache. Vitoria would look sharply, obdurately, at that black moustache, at those eyes with slanting brows, at his whole stodgy, broad-shouldered figure, for he had been her love for twenty years and then some. This is what she had loved about him in her youth, this is what she still loved about him when their children had grown to be as tall as they were. Whenever she was being quick-tempered and obstinate beyond measure, Lipan would figure it was time to drive some of those demons away; and to this end he would put to use two tricks, just barely different one from the other. The first was called a beating, while the second was called a sound beating, or a good thrashing. The wife would endure her man's might without a flinch, and remain unyielding, with her demons and all, while Nechifor would bow his head and show great sorrow and regret. Afterwards, the world would seem again to both of them a good and leisurely place to live in, just as God had arranged it in the tale told by the shepherd who had been a Jew.Fortune they had, but no more than they needed: shabracks in the attic, lamb-skins in the house, flocks up in the mountains. Money they also had, hidden among cinders in a small pail. Having grown sick and tired of milk, cheese and the flesh of sheep ripped by wolves, they would bring vegetables from down in the plains. Also from the wide, sun-bathed plains, they would bring cornflower. At times, Vitoria would go herself and fetch it, loaded in sacks upon five packhorses. The first of these she would ride astride, man-fashion, while the others would come behind, their heads bent low and the reins of each tied to the tails of those in front. Out of the seven children God had blessed them with, only two had been left. Five they had lost to measles and diphtheria; their names and their faces had dimmed from memory, melting into forgetfulness with the flowers, the butterflies and the lambs of passing years. Upon the two that had lived, both man and wife looked fondly. Lipan would lavish his love mostly on the girl, who was the elder and was called Minodora. This was the name he had heard from a nun at Agapia and he liked it. The lad they had named Gheorghiţă, and his mother would watch over him and shield him whenever there were clouds of anger in Lipan's eyes.Gheorghiţă was the name Vitoria had taken a liking to, for it was Nechifor Lipan's real and secret name. It was the name the priest and his god-parents had given him at his christening, when they baptized him, with holy water and oil, into true faith. But in his fourth year he had fallen ill with dropsy, and he had grown so weak that priests had to be called in, to give him the last rites. And after this, there came the old gypsy wife of Lazăr the kobsa player, and his mother sold the boy to her out of the window for a copper coin. And receiving the boy from his mother, the woman breathed upon his brow muttering disenchantments and she changed his name, so that illness and death would not know him anymore. From that day on, Nechifor remained his name; but whenever they were alone and no one could hear them, she would still call him Gheorghiţă, with a certain sweetness in her voice, which the boy also possessed. Gheorghiţă had come down for the winter, with the shepherds, the flocks, the mules and the dogs, to one of the marshlands of Jilia, to a place called Cristeşti, not far from the town of Iassy. It was there that he was to stay, by Nechifor's orders, until his father came himself to pay for the hay and the reed hangings for the sheep's shelter, and give the men their wages. Quite some time had gone by and Nechifor had not sent word to them either, not even to say that his son might go home. One week earlier a letter had come for Vitoria, and she had taken it to Father Dănilă to read it out for her. The lad was sending answer that he was waiting for his father to come with the money, to settle things with the shepherds and the owner of the meadows. "And the sheep fare well," he added, "and so do we, by God's mercy, and the weather is still fine, but we long for our homes. I kiss your hand, mother; I kiss your hand, father."That was what Gheorghiţă was saying in his letter, and Vitoria had come to know it by heart. That is to say, Nechifor Lipan had not turned up down there either. Who knows what could be delaying him! After all, the world is wide and full of malice.The third day after the boy's letter had arrived, the postman had blown his trumpet again on the banks of the river and Vitoria had gone down there to receive a new letter. It was from Alexa, the shepherd, who was writing back to her. It was written by the boy's hand, but the words were the shepherd's:"From I could make out, mistress, from the letter ye sent the boy, ye're still alone; and Nechifor Lipan, our master and the owner of the flocks, has nor turned up here either. So that, being in great need of our wages and of money for the animals' food and our own, ye'd better send us some. Ye give the money to the post office in Piatra, and the people there will write to those in Iassy to pay us such and such sum, and then they will meet and settle it among themselves, what they have given and taken – that's their business. This is good deal and much to my liking, for ye won't need to ride all the way over here, nor can brigands rob ye. And if you reckon otherwise, send orders to the boy to sell some of the older sheep. Nechifor Lipan, our master, is to come here anyway with the flock we know he went for to Dorna." What could have become of her man? He alone had not sent word. The day before she had had new hope for a moment. The postman had blown his trumpet again. Letter in hand, Vitoria had hurried to Father Dănilă. Maybe it came from around Dorna. It did not. It was from nearby, from Piatra. Father Dănilă was laughing heartily, his paunch wobbling up and down. She went red in the face with shame as she listened. This one too she knew by heart by now, she could see the little winged angels becrowned with roses.The picture postcard was addressed to Miss Minodora Lipan.[…]That is to say, the son of Andrei, the psalm reader, who was doing his military service in Piatra, was still steadfast in trying to make the girl lose her head. He is to blame, all right, but who is also to blame is his mother, and Vitoria will be sure to give her a piece of her mind; however, it is this shameless lass who is mostly to blame, for her slippery eyes. The first thing Vitoria did as she came in through the door was to stamp her foot at her daughter, rebuke and admonish her with bitter, biting words:"Is that what your mind is at now, girl? To make me pass such disgrace, make me the laughing-stock of the village? Ye're a missy now, aren't ye?""That's no shame, ma: that's what they say now.""I don't know about that; you girls keep giggling at one another and no longer like your peasant skirt and blouse, and any gypsy playing some German waltz goes straight to your heart. I'll teach ye to bring your hair up in a bun, and dance waltzes and wear elegant blouses, confound ye! I never knew such things, nor did your grandmother, nor mine either – and by our ways ye must live, too, or else I'll throw ye into the Tarcău with a grindstone tied to your neck. Don't I have enough troubles, alone here with winter just days away and not knowing a thing about your father, without having to listen to the priest reading such shameful things? This might be gospel for the likes of you, but not for him.""Is that my letter?" asked the girl slyly."What letter?""The one you've stuck in the mirror frame.""I'll give you letters! Ye'd better go card the wool I left for ye and have it ready by tonight. And don't let me catch ye again sweeping the dirt out in the sunlight, like you did today, or I'll have two grindstones, not one, tied to your neck, fifteen pounds each. Haven't you learnt what's proper? Ye've lost all sense of what is clean, and holy, and good since you filled your brain with maggots and you call yourself a missy."And so she kept brooding, with nothing to appease her worried mind and no news from where she longed for it.Towards dawn that night she got the first sign, in her dream, and it stabbed her heart and distressed her still more. In that dream of hers Nechifor Lipan, his back towards her, was riding across an overflow of waters into the west.[…] At Cruci she chanced upon a wedding procession.Sleighs carrying the guests dashed across the frozen Bistriţa. The bride and the bridesmaids had flowers in their hair; married women wore only short furred coats and their peasant skirts. The men were shooting their pistols over the firs, to scare winter away before its time. As soon as they caught sight of strangers coming along the upper road, the best men spurred their horses and halted before them, the kerchiefs at their horses' ears waving. They held out their flasks and raised their pistols. Either the strangers would drink to the princely groom and his most deserving bride, or else be killed on the spot. The procession swerved towards the road. Vitoria accepted the flask and spoke handsome wishes to the bride. She looked gay and spoke merrily, though it would have suited her better to be sickened, since she was going to meet with bad payers."I am from up the Tarcău," she said then, "and I'm the woman of one Nechifor Lipan, who has passed himself through this country from time to time and maybe he has raised his glass at one of your weddings, like I just did. On my way I first came upon a christening; and it would have been more befitting to meet the wedding first and then the christening; but sometimes it just happens to be the other way round. It's right when this happens, too, for all things come from God. But there's something else that makes me wonder: by the new orders from the authorities, which our village crier shouted out with a beating of his drums, there's been a change in the calendar. We all woke up to find ourselves to be thirteen days older – that if you count the days, the fasts and the holidays after the fashion of popery. By this new law we should be in Lent now, but I see ye're celebrating weddings as if we were still at Shrovetide.""Ho-ho" shouted the sponsors, standing up in the sleighs. "Ye, woman from the Tarcău, don't seem to know that we here don't go after the new law and would much rather be thirteen days younger; we abide by the old calendar which God gave Adam at the beginning of this world. We won't have it otherwise and we make our priest keep the old ways. The poor man has no choice but to do as we say – and if elsewhere others like to side with the Germans or the Jews, that's their own business, and we can't help it. They'll burn in the fire imperishable on the other world.""Have no worry," answered the woman, "for we, up there, go by the old ways, too. But there's one thing I'll have ye tell me, if you can; which of ye has seen a man from our parts, with a grey fur cap and riding a black horse with a blaze on its forehead." There weren't any in the company who could say they had seen such a man. Only among the women there was one who seemed to remember; but she soon forgot, too. The procession took off and was soon back on the frozen Bistriţa, amid boisterous riots. X At a slow amble, Vitoria rode on, with gloom in her eyes. Now and again she would let her son in on her thoughts, in sparing words. She could not say she minded such delays terribly. Better mingle among people with their leave, so she might observe and find out as much as she could. From this she also learnt how to shun such assemblies when need be. She would rather be out in the open among friends, than into hiding among fiends. When in a crowd, one is hardly taken heed of, but can scrutinise at ease. In a crowd, one is as good as alone, with one's grief; but among few company, one is easily eyed up and down.Gheorghiţă did not really understand, but it seemed to him it was as it should be.It looked like Nechifor had gone the same way as they were, without trouble."Perhaps no misfortune is gonna hinder us, either, and we shall arrive safely at the sheep market. And we shall see what kind of a country Dorna is and what kind of a mountain the Rarău."And they fared well indeed, with well-suited halts. As they were getting nearer Dorna country, Vitoria sniffed the air and something like a fragrance came to her nostrils. It was but a mild, lukewarm breeze blowing from the west, and soon it was going to melt the snow. But she was numb to everything from without; a stifling fire from within was consuming her. She had every confidence that in this place her life was to take a different turn.Dorna country is all creeks, and fir-clad hills, and hillocks and settlements of villages. Every kin there had its Dorna. They were handsome people and decent, and much to Vitoria's liking. As she rode through the villages she watched their merrymaking at the tavern, watched them as they danced passionately, eagerly, as if in a few hours the world were to come to an end. Here, in this Dorna, there had been no fair, nor sheep sold; not in Şarul Dornei, either; nor in Dorna Cîndrenilor; but great fair had been held and many a flock sold the summer before in Vatra Dornei, as far as everyone knew who was there and was gay.Vitoria bent her head and looked wearily around her. It was time she made for Vatra Dornei to look for her debtors."Come, Gheorghiţă, grab a morsel as we ride on, for it is not proper to arrive late. We shall give barley to the horses when we reach there. For my part, I haven't had peace or sleep since yesterday, and I don't need food or water. I feel I have come to God's seat of justice, and I have to kneel before it."As soon as they had set out for Dorna, they came out under the bright light of the afternoon sun. Snow was melting and small rivulets had begun to run underneath. At places, the snow was still trodden, and there the hoofs of the horses echoed as if they were crossing a bridge. Winter was melting away in the valleys, sparkling and going up in vapors to the sun.A tall, lanky man, with his sheepskin coat hanging loose on one shoulder, in yuft boots and with a staff in hand with which he now and again amused himself writing lines in the snow, had been keeping close to them for some time now. He was going in the horse's amble, too. Presently, he quickened his pace, caught up with the woman and then tuned his pace to hers. He asked where she was coming from and where she planned to put up."I am coming from afar, my good man, and I shall only stop in Vatra Dornei.""D'ye have business there?""I have some bad payers.""And ain't ye going to ask me where I'm heading and what I'm after?""If it so pleases ye, I shall ask."The man was gay. He grinned wryly and uncoiled like a thread from a reel towards Vitoria, whispering something in her ear, so the boy wouldn't hear him. The woman lashed the horse's neck with the reins and sprinted forward, her face turned towards Gheorghiţă and snapping an order:"Draw out your hatchet and strike him!"So dry and poisoned her voice sounded, that both man and lad shriveled. Gheorghiţă reached for the hatchet; the man cleared a ditch and went up a steep path that skirted an abrupt slope. He was laughing to himself and wondering at such an apparition: "Surely this woman is from another world. In our parts, women are friendlier; they have sharp tongues, not sharp blades." Truth be told, Lipan's wife herself was thinking she had come to another world. She cast a sidelong, resentful glance at the man as he walked away. Then she put her horse to a trot.After a while, by what she had heard and without anyone showing her, she recognized away to the east the Pietrele Doamnei and the Rarău. It was from that frozen wilderness that the shepherds had come to Nechifor Lipan with the flocks. […] XVI At the gate of the churchyard, Mr. Toma and Mistress Maria helped Vitoria hand out to everyone, as they came out, a quarter of a loaf of bread and a small glass of plum brandy, in remembrance of the dead man. Men and women whispered the ritual "may God forgive him his sins" as they drank the brandy in one gulp, then broke a morsel of bread to soothe the pleasant burn in their mouth.Children were laughing merrily and frolicking among the graves.Having given out the alms and the wheat cake, the priests took off their canonicals. There was still one bit of the service left, and it was none the easiest. Vitoria hurried towards them to invite them to the funeral repast, back at Mr. Toma's. It was there that the people from the authorities, the sub-prefect among them, were to gather, as well as the foreign husbandmen who had come from over the mountains.The wife of Mr. Toma had prepared everything as best she could. As they were in Lent, food was a bit of a problem. But drink they had in plenty, and good one at that, which made up for the shortage. Best of all there was wine from Odobeşti, and it was Mr. Toma's great pride.When they sat down to eat, the sun was setting. The dead man had finally found his rest. The living began eating Lenten dumplings and cabbage fried in hemp seed oil. The priests and the sub-prefect were seated at the place of honor, at the far end of the room. The husbandmen from Doi Meri sat towards the other end. Vitoria came and sat down next to them.When they had drunk a few more glasses, the talk drifted back to things from this world:"I say, Mr. Calistrat," said the woman, "it seems to me ye're not eating.""I am indeed, praise be to God.""Ye're not drinking then. It is befitting to drink to a friend's memory.""Why, but drunk I have, most of all. Only that I'm thinking we're far from home and we have to fare by night.""And what of it? Ye sure ain't afraid of the dark. I see you carry a hatchet.""So I do.""And a handsome one at that. Come on, have one more drink, so I can see ye. And after that ye'll have more, to your heart's content. Let me see that hatchet. I fancy to have a look at it. Gheorghiţă, my lad, has one just like it."Bogza grinned uneasily and handed the woman the hatchet by the side of the table.The woman summoned her son. He was already behind her."Gheorghiţă, have a look at this here hatchet. It seems to me that yours is exactly like this one. Only that yours has just come out of the blacksmith's fire; this one is older and knows more."With a laugh, she passed the hatchet on to the boy.Calistrat reached for the weapon; then he withdrew his hand. The lad was weighing up intently the curved blade and the broad sides."Let him look and see, Mr. Calistrat," said the woman. "And you have another glass of wine from Odobeşti. You know well that it was such wine that was to Nechifor Lipan's liking, too. It is this how I reckon," she spoke suddenly, with a changed tone in her voice, turning towards the others. "I reckon, Mr. Calistrat, that my husband was riding alone uphill along the road to Stânişoara, with his sheep on his mind. Maybe I was on his mind too. I wasn't there, but I know. Lipan told me, while I stayed with him all those nights down in that ravine.""And what was it that he told ye?""He told me how it all came about. D'ye remember, Mr. Calistrat, that Lipan had a dog with him?""I do. Lupu he called him. Able dog and brave.""You see, Mr. Calistrat? And I know more, that this dog fought for his master when his life was in danger.""It can well be that he did.""And d'ye reckon the dog perished too?""I don't. Much rather he's lost some place.""That's my reckoning too. But if he's lost, he can be found.""That's difficult.""It's not difficult, Mr. Calistrat, when it's God's will. Please, have one more drink. Shall I tell ye how it all came to pass?"At the table, everyone had fallen silent. Stirred, the sub-prefect rested his elbows on the napkin and turned his left ear, which was keener, while glancing from the corner of his eye.Feeling everyone's stare upon him, Bogza grew uneasy. "Ye know and I don't. If ye do, speak out then.""I shall, Mr. Calistrat. My man, deep in his thoughts, was going uphill at his horse's amble towards the Talieni Cross."The woman halted."Well?" the sub-prefect urged her, smiling. "Go on. Why did you stop?""Some might think he was going downhill. But I know better: he was going up. And he was not alone. He had his dog with him, and there were two men as well. One of them had spurred his horse and hurried to the hilltop to make sure no one was in sight. The other was walking behind Lipan, leading his horse by the bridle. And it was not dark yet, mind ye. It was dusk. Some think such deeds are done at night. I have knowledge that this deed happened when the sun was setting. When the man in front gave sign that they need not fear, that no one was around, the one who was walking let go of the reins. He drew out his hatchet from under his left arm and slunk up to Lipan from behind. Just one blow he struck him, but so mighty a blow, like when you try to cleave a trunk. Lipan raised his arms, but he didn't have time to shout; he fell forward, with his face in the horse's mane. Then, with the broad side of the hatchet, the man shoved the horse over the cliff in the ravine. It was then that the dog sprang at him. The man kicked him under the jaw. The horse had started with fright, and when the man pushed it, it rolled down the slope. The dog fell over, too. First, he stopped, barking furiously; the man tried to strike him with the hatchet, but he jumped aside and crawled down into the ravine after his master. "This is how it came about. The man mounted his horse and caught up with the one on the hilltop and off they went. No man saw them and no man has known of their deed until now."The woman grew silent and looked towards Mistress Maria with pouted lips. Mr. Vasiliu's wife, like all who were present, remained motionless, waiting. Suspicions were sprouting in their minds. The woman's innuendoes and inquiries had done their work. Everyone apprehended her story to some extent. Only that most of them seemed unable to gather why this strange woman was going about weaving intrigues and voicing mean accusations. If she had any suspicion, let her speak out; if she suspected anyone, let her name him openly.This was much the kind of thought that was building up angrily in everyone's mind, and in Calistrat Bogza's most of all. He had known from the start, from the moment he had laid eyes on the sheep owner's woman, that she was coming for him. But he had waited patiently, for he doubted she could have discovered such a deed of which no trace was left. The woman would strain herself to no avail, he'd reckoned, then go back to where she'd come from.But she had not come back. She was going about spreading rumours and weaving wicked intrigues. She was rousing Cuţui's wife and whispering malicious reports to Ileana. She was kindling suspicion in people's hearts with all kinds of delusions. And still he let her be. In a way he even felt pity for her, for she was a wretched widow looking for her dead man.Great wonder, though, how she had managed to find him in such a lonely and precipitous ravine. Greater wonder, still, how she had come up with all those contrivances of hers. And now – the story of the occurrence.Stupid and brainless he would be to imagine she had been there. Even more so to believe that the dead man could have spoken. No one believes things like that nowadays. And still, this woman who has been hunting him showed things exactly as they had been, point by point. Couldn't it be, as Ileana used to say, as Gafiţa would have it when she was not yet bitter with grudge, could it be that one can work spells and that there are mirrors that reveal things past and things yet to happen? It is not worthy of a man to believe in that sort of thing; and still, there's no smoke without fire.After all, let her show how she had come to know all that and get things out in the open. Perhaps she had learnt something from Ilie Cuţui's wife. Rotten thing to have such friends and such vile companions. But there was no way Ilie Cuţui could have seen it as it happened, either. Stranger still is that he himself did not know well how it all came about. Only now he learns that this is precisely how it was.With such thoughts boiling inside his head Bogza, feeling the others' gaze upon him, drank down a glass of wine, then another. And then, almost without realizing it, he made a terrible decision. A woman's a woman, and a man's a man. And he was a man, all right, one who had never been anybody's laughing stock in his life."Give me back my hatchet," he spoke, still composed, reaching out again towards Gheorghiţă.