What We See

excerpts …Once, when his wife's condition showed signs of deterioration, Marcu entered the Sfînta Vineri church, on his way home from the shops he had called at to collect his rents. He prayed a long time and fervently, though he could hardly concentrate, choking and coughing all the time because of the thick smoke from the frankincense and the candles that would gather into thick blankets and hovered under the dark wide vaults all the way to the open entrance door that let in, even here, the rattling and roaring of the trams and the cries and sing-song of the beggars who were strung on two rows between the church and the belfry near the street side under whose archways swarmed hucksters with church articles for sale, little icons, brochures used as talismans, Bibles, votive candles and further similar things. Between the rows of hucksters and beggars, there would come and go masses of believers among whom you could easily tell the spinsters and poor young women who had no hopes of getting married. While not all of them appeared to buy anything but candles as a rule, all would drop something or other in the beggars hands, hats or plates, but, surprisingly, they did so in a kind of indifference to the misery and physical deformities displayed there, which did not justify in the least the charitable gesture performed, it would seem, only as a ritual. But even the beggars themselves received the alms with a similar kind of indifference for the giver, rather like clerks whose job it was to bring about the charitable gesture, not like people ill-favored by destiny. A young man suspended, as it were, between two crutches, with a madman's expression on his face, kept shivering, gritted his teeth and, sitting there, right by the church steps, a plate with a flower pattern at his feet, whose content he emptied in his pockets from time to time, moving much more easily towards it and back than his withered left leg would have permitted it, being no longer than an arm and turned towards his chest in a fantastic ballet pose, kept barking commands, as it were, at those who were passing and stooping to give him alms and cast conspiratorial glances from under his verminated eyelids now in the direction of the church door, now in the direction of the belfry by the street's side. And, although his plate was filling over and over, he managed to show it always empty, while the pocket of his incredibly torn and soiled tunic kept bulging with a burden that would ring with a thudding metal sound at his slightest move. Next to him, dressed in a yellowish silk overcoat with ignoble stains on the hem and lapels, but enveloped in an air of wild isolation, an old man was holding out a black hat now worn green and red on its top, and his fat head, entirely devoured by the beard, moustaches and disheveled hair, whenever it was showing from inside the felt container, gave the crowd a sweeping bored look, like the scowl of an inspector, from the height of his immobile neck, as proudly immobile as the rest of his body. …Aggressive boys with hair streaming into their eyes were leading dubious girls on sidewalks, spitting in disdain, puffing into the passengers' eyes the clouds of smoke from their cigarettes stuck to the lower lip so they didn't have to take them out of their mouths when they spoke. Spent women, their faces made up with powder and a violent red blush ill-spread on their purple skin, were advancing cocked on heels that were really too high and often crooked, one arm akimbo, the other arm swinging over the big bag made of peeling oilskin. Here and there, very near the curb, popcorn cracked gun-like on little grills, sizzling spicy mince sausages and the smell of hot patties filling the air with a heavy choking smoke. Crouching by a wall, an old woman with her head lost in no end of scarves extended tiny seed pouches, some with sunflower seeds, others with pumpkin seeds for sale and through the cheap restaurant doors was coming into the street the ring of quarrelsome voices followed by a mist of stale sack and shoddy cigarette smoke, in the wake of snappish, noisy men. On a street-corner people were elbowing their way through a crowd gathered around two blokes who were fighting and shouting. The trams roaring by and the automobiles covered their voices. The captain continued on his way. Unaware at first, he was intently assessing the women. An appetizingly sturdy blonde made his heart beat. He followed her, watching the romp of her hips and moving shoulders. But he lost her in a dark passage. Further away, near the Observatory he noticed a wide-hipped young girl whose bare feet were shod in Roman sandals and who had cherry-red lips. He let her pass him but, seen from behind, she was as straight as a board. And, with his attention freed from such observations, he could now hear the nightingales in the park under the moon that had risen red, full, amazingly voluminous. Around it the air was burning in waves. His eyes moistened. He wished to be with Maria, to descend the stairs into the park together with her, to get into a boat. On the shores, of course that swans can hardly be discerned now, clouds appear blotted, lactescent over the shadows of grasses, willows and the whole water of the lake, blue from the night's deep blue while the oars crush the golden visage of the moon. He almost loved her then with the love of the beginning. …Under the pressure of the events, the captain had not thought of placing Eliade for lunch and dinner at the students' cantina off the Buzeşti square or anywhere else, for that matter, thinking, perhaps, that the young man would be accommodated for lunch by the Marcus. Now Eliade himself had misled Zizi not only because he felt embarrassed to let her know that his uncle had, indeed, not thought about it, and not also because, while she was asking him: 'When do you have dinner?' he had understood what big, permanent uneasiness he would cause for her if he accepted the vaguely implicit invitation of eating in the Clopotarii Vechi home, but especially because the prospect of experiencing for a while the rigors of a diet restricted, for example, to the salted pretzels filled him with enthusiasm. He was still under the strong impression of Mr. Atanasiu's performance. By the same token, he had indicated the cantina of the Buzeşti square at random only to realize on the spot that it was actually a refined place, on a terrace that connected this massive, austere, English, red-brick building to one side with the School for Bridges and Highways, and to the other side with the Antipa [Museum of Natural History], this tropical flower in the crown of the Piaţa Victoriei square placed, as it were, on top of a pate or granite head that descended towards the Matache Măcelaru [Butcher] marketplace towards the Calea Victoriei boulevard which was so crowded with trams, busses, carriages, military cars always in a big hurry, an enormous, variegated world on the move under the trees and smoke-colored buildings with a Parisian aspect, along a narrow, dark, Iberian, route on its way to the Calea Victoriei boulevard, but not there as yet and now just passing abreast of the Italian Institute and further on, along the elegant Catargiu Boulevard with so many trees on its sides, as far as the feet of a massive old poplar with a mane of hare and the long arms stretched, her body covered all over to the hips by black circular wounds with scales and necroses now healed but in time smeared burst and burnt oils that had leaked over this portion which had also been cleft from top to bottom, as it were, and was housing a narrow, long hollow which made you think it could open infinitely any moment, just like the arms; in the vaulted upper part of this hollow he had caught sight more than once from the tram window rapidly gliding past of an owl, claws, beak, down and feathers all alive and burning. On the monumental masonry of the poplar's foliage, light descended in a filmy coating of honey. Its leaves, turned by the wind now on this side, now on the other, would flicker like candle-light, like a flight of birds dashing in one direction only to return, all, of a sudden the next moment, in the contrary direction. He found it worth his while to roam in these whereabouts, even if his occupations detained him in other zones of the city, and to bide his time here carrying along with him the pale, haggard face of his empty stomach and its deeply mumbling utterances rendered inaudible by the automobiles and trams but succeeding to find their way to a hypersensitive ear that could and would certainly perceive their appeal amidst the compound noise of the voices, the heavily yet also suddenly dashing sound made by the iron rolling on iron, or the honks. (1979)

by Radu Petrescu