by Doina Rusti
Trans into English by James Ch. Brown
I. The characters
She did not strike me as beautiful, especially at first, but not for a long time after either, and it was only much later that I realized that she was like a jewel dropped in the murky water of a pond, quite out of place in the Gorgani district, where she seemed to have fallen from the sky, like that man Hasan Çelebi, the rocketeer, who has a bridge named after him. She was from another side of the world, from another life, and her power came not from the beauty that stops you in your tracks, but from something unseen and contagious, something that appeared along the way, after you made the mistake of stopping to talk with her, for, as you listened to her words, you went with them into a soap bubble from which you would be quite unable ever to get out again. Few had what fate had given to her. When I think of her, there comes to my mind a flower the size of a finger-nail, sparkling red in colour, known as devil’s-blood. As soon as you spot it, you feel like lifting it to your nose, not so much to smell its perfume as because you expect it to be startled by your attention. But once you have smelled it, you are as good as dead. If you have taken this imprudent step, its scent will rise up your nostrils, and from there it will scatter through all your flesh, taking possession of your lungs and your blood, and finally of your brain, which cannot withstand its power. And what a treacherous scent is hidden in its petals! First it pours over you the enticing perfume of a loaf fresh from the oven, overpowering and clean, enough to put to rest all your fears and sorrows. And only after that does its true smell get to you, the smell of a crushed vine shoot, in which are hidden the aspirations of the unripe grape and the sinful joys of the ripe fruit. This is in fact the aroma that takes possession of you, making a slave of you forever. And once touched by its perfume, you forget all you have ever loved till then, nothing pleases you any more, you have no more desires and you hope no longer. If the next day robbers enter your house and start slaughtering your family, you will stand aside, numbed by the dreams of a flower.
That is just how she was, just like that flower. I felt her power that morning when she came out of the pharmacist’s, wearing a dress that I could hear whispering with every movement, lace cradled on soft waves of sendal. And as I looked at her eyes, seeking their route, I came upon the blue coupé, in which a man sat sighing. They were two people discreetly looking at one another, a woman, assaulted by whispers, and a man pretending indifference, casting his eyes far off through the carriage window, though it was obvious to anyone that in all Bucharest, if not in all the world, there was no one but the two of them. He looked straight ahead, but in the corner of his eyes glinted the tear that makes of any man a hunted prey. Out of the folds of her garments flew bees, and her eyes, from which lethal perfumes were scattered, made their way towards the blue carriage. He would not look at her if it was the last thing he did, but his cheek showed distress, like that of a man under constraint, and she was offended at his indifference, as I could easily see from the way she blinked, leaving in her wake waves of accusation from which he would never escape.
And I realized not only that I was going to see them again, seeking one another with the same look that said clearly that between them the fireballs of love were starting to grow, but something else too, something that concerned me alone. Without wishing it, I had entered the shadowy zone where no one knows about you. Only the two of them were in sight, while I, who until then had been at the centre of events, was passing easily into the perfidious mist of alien desires, like a poor fly caught in the wind.
This woman with talking dresses and changeful eyes was Despina, the daughter of Băleanu, or, at any rate, half his, for such beings always have a dubious birth. But first I should say that Băleanu, although he passed for a boyar, was not a scion of the great Băleanu family, as one might imagine, but the offspring of some sun-tanned merchants, folk full of feeling, a man who lived as his heart dictated and who already in his youth had cast off his real name and made everyone call him Băleanu, as if he were the only one in Bucharest, a sort of vestige of the old boyars whom Brâncoveanu had swept out of history. And perhaps it would all have gone smoothly for him, had he not married Mușa, the renowned singer of Bucharest in those days, a woman who had first brought him happiness and then turned his life upside down. They loved for one long, torrid summer, arousing envy in the whole district of Gorgani because of their carriages adorned with flowers and their faces that showed that self-satisfaction that is often provocative. Băleanu was rich, and as for her—what can I say? Although she sang only at the Princely Palace or in select circles, her reputation had got around, not so much for her voice as for her luxurious dresses. Very few had actually heard her singing, but there was no one in the district who did not know her name.
Their first child was named Haralambie, after the saint on whose day he was born. For a year, every heart in the Băleanu house beat only to the rhythm of the boy’s crying, and his parents floated on foamy waves.
But there is an hour that comes down into the world when you least expect it, a sort of wolf’s mouth that breathes over the woods and sometimes over the hair on the crown of a man’s head, scattering dreams, erasing the paths that had hitherto promised a secure future, and Mușa left the house at just such an hour. It was summer, and from behind the butcher’s shop rose the evocative smell of hammered meat. She bypassed the mound that rose as it does today in the middle of the district, and went down to the market. And what a delight! The sky sighed sleepily, and below it could be heard the clinking of beads, with their whole repertoire of old songs. Mușa walked lazily, dragging her slippers, enjoying the feel of the gravel under their new soles, feasting her ears on the vulgar merriment of glass beads and the self-indulgent outpourings of pearls. She fingered bracelets and rings, she scrutinized amber, before stopping in the end before a shop selling fine dessert ware. Silver spoons, coffee cups and crystal glasses, sweet-bowls of perfumed wood, and above all, low tables, finely carved or painted with women half-hidden in veils. But all these counted for little once she saw the merchant himself, a handsome man in whose eyes there smouldered hopeless longings, perfidious shoots, like strands of hellweed. Without relaxing his gaze, the merchant held out to her a silver jug, and in its reflective surface, whitened by the summer sun, floated little fish of temptation.
Mușa disappeared without trace, together with this nameless market-trader, and two years later, there appeared at Băleanu’s gate an incredibly tall stranger. He stuck his walking stick out through his carriage window and struck the bell, and when the door was opened for him, he showed the maidservant a wicker basket. A little later, Băleanu himself came down, dumb with astonishment. He listened to the polite and lanky stranger, and when the man had gone, the locals realized that Băleanu was holding in his arms a child, a little girl, whom he christened Despina.
All his parental love was directed at Haralambie, as was only normal. He was the true child of Mușa, her very mirror. In him pulsated Băleanu’s hopes and the envy of the Gorgani district, since that summer when through the Băleanu gate came carriages adorned with flowers. Haralambie was the future master; he was the heir.
And while the boy, whom everyone affectionately called Lambru, enjoyed all the attention, the girl was left to the care of servants. She lacked nothing, and no one could say that he did not love her as his daughter or, at least, as the daughter of Mușa, whom he had loved boundlessly, but nor did he make any great effort to see her, so that weeks could pass in which he knew nothing about her. And so Despina grew up, passing, nevertheless, for the daughter of the honourable Băleanu, who in time rose to be not merely a sort of pillar of the Gorgani district, but also the holder of the honorary title of Grand Paharnic.
Despina you could recognize anywhere by her whiteish dresses, all tailored the same, so that you could not tell if they were this year’s or last’s. All were adorned with flowers lost in the buttery foam of rich embroidery, petals frozen as they melted into soft dunes of sand, honeysuckle, hollyhock, and slender branches, leaves of dog rose floating in the waters of cotton, silk, or other fabrics.
I remember her climbing into her carriage, with her skirt billowing behind her in the wind.
This girl, of merchant origins, if we take into account also the handsome seller of sweet-bowls, seemed untouched by any sorrow. All the same, you could not say that she was cheerful, but rather she gave you the impression that she was talking to someone unseen or, as my mother used to say, she lived in a world of her own, where she seemed to lack nothing. For all that she was tall, she did not impose respect by her height, but rather by her posture, like an umbrella standing in a brand-new shoe. And that brings me to the subject of Despina’s shoes, about which I really must tell you. I do not know where she bought them, for they were not from the market, but came in mysterious chests that servants unloaded at the door. They were always tall shoes, with thick heels, sewn from a leather so fine that you were tempted to steal them to make a bag or gloves to wear at parties. It was not the usual Morocco, but a material without the slightest roughness, without shine. And as for the colours! It seemed to me that the paler her dresses the more vivid her shoes, in shades that had no name, from purple of early grapes to the green of waterlily leaves. She did not like tassels, although they were very much the fashion in Bucharest, but preferred buckles set on the front of the shoe, like strange tools, little jewels or mother-of-pearl buttons, so that you could immediately tell that the feet were hers.
So much for her shoes, but she also received things that you would not believe could enter someone’s head, silver-plated spy-glasses, books bound in velvet, dolls as tall as she was, all ordered through the suppliers of the Băleanu household, and once an ebony box came to her from Brașov in which a singing elf was held captive. In her chamber, the lights burned till dawn, and sometimes shadows were seen moving or voices were heard that had nothing human about them. Everywhere she went, glasses rang and the dishes set on tables vibrated, as if they had been touched by a ghostly hand.
One night, when all the household were asleep, the chest in the salon opened, and one of Despina’s dresses headed for the door, hovering like a crow seeking its prey. The cook, who for some reason or other, had got out of bed, saw the silk dress going out the door, carried by a breath of wind, and ran to the window, from where she could follow its route through the stalls of Gorgani market, till the hungry shadows of the night finally swallowed it.
Captain Manciu, who did not set much store by spirits, scoured the district in search of the missing dress, but it was not to be found. Some said it had been taken to Cotroceni, in the forest, where a ghost was alleged to dwell.
But this happened many years before the autumn day with which I began my story, when a man was looking from a carriage window, with striking indifference, while Despina was coming out of the pharmacist’s wearing a rustling dress. Behind her, the door she had come through seemed to tremble, and ahead lay the street, which market traders had taken by assault, a street which, although it bore the name of the boyar Brezoianu, could be considered to belong completely to the pharmacist Lambru, whose house extended between the two great intersections, so that whichever way you came, it was impossible not to see it, especially as it had a terrace with flowers on top, such as no one else had. Along the edges were rows of oleanders, and from the balustrades flowed rich waves of ivy. Among the flowers could be seen white statues, brought from who knows what country, marble figures that seemed newly descended from the heavens. The house has a main door painted in a colour such as you rarely saw, a sort of ripe apricot that someone had kept in wine. But it also had side entrances, one towards the pharmacy and the other giving directly into the yard, where the garden was laid out, with a plum tree famed for its fist-sized fruit, which thieves competed to get their hands on.
In front of this house could be seen the imposing carriage of Despina Băleanu, clothed in the same muted colours as her garments, while across the road, the fortune teller’s coupé glittered; it was painted in a strident blue that caught your eyes and sent a flash of lightening into your soul.