Translation Jean Harris
„Zgaiba died Wednesday at 17:26 – his head smashed in. A car travelling at speed killed him in the middle of the street. The sound of the blow kept ringing in Vivi’s brain. The driver never stopped. He must have heard a thud under the body of the car, there under the right front wheel. He floored the accelerator, and remoteness swallowed him. Vivi lost track of the car at the end of the street. Tsak tsak tsak: He went on shooting the images reflexively. That was the thing. Horrified. Zgaiba. Images on the sidewalk. The dog didn’t drop right away. He was hurled a metre along the curb. He didn’t bark. He didn’t yelp. He didn’t let out a sound. Time stood still. It took Vivi a moment to come back to his senses. Zgaiba: images on the pavement – his eyes fogged over; his big eyes, stunned. In a state of shock. His tail lowered, his ears pricked. Vivi went on looking at the dog’s coffee-coloured spine there among the iron spears of the fence. Tsak, tsak, tsak. Zgaiba had started heading back to the gate that had let him out earlier. He had crossed the street. He had nearly slipped into the courtyard. He gazed into the familiar place without understanding what hit him. From dying to collapse, the whole scene lasted an instant. Right before Vivi’s eyes.
„He’s dead!” a voice fell down from somewhere above. At her window, the neighbour leaned over her sill. For Vivi she counted as a rasping voice, a head that had popped out from a broken window. „He’s dead.” „No!” „Don’t weep for him. He’s in heaven. It’s better there. If it weren’t, someone would have come back with all the whys and wherefores…” „No!” „Be glad he’s escaped this vale of tears…” Another window opened. A head with messed up hair, a greenish dye job, pyjama top. Old, half-naked chest. „How did it happen?” Vivi couldn’t muster a word. The others had plenty to say, like, „Throw him in the garbage. There’s a bin at the vacant lot toward the tram.” „To let the worms eat him?” „He’ll stick. He’ll swell up and smell.” But now the mate of the head from a moment ago was popping up. The guy had called his wife from inside to see what was going. „Call the Board of Health…” „The garbage men!…” „Who’s going to get rid of this cadaver for us?” „There’s an undertaker at the square. I’ll let them know we have a dead body in the courtyard….” Suspended from a balcony above, a flag began to shake over the wrought iron parapet. „And the police force, what’s it doing?” „Nothing. What’s there to do?” „It’s a dog, not a person,” the old lady chimed in in a nettlesome way, her sepulchral voice, low and very deep. „It’s a good thing he died. We’ve gotten rid of his mess. You step in shit all over the sidewalk…” „Hey man, what’re ya doin’ with that flag?” „I like waving it whenever I get a chance.” „Another madman…” Vivi takes a gander at a broad, flat head, a mask of something like whitewash on its face, the shoulders in a green dressing gown. „I was afraid to come home, for fear he’d attack me…” „Did he ever attack you, huh?” „That’s all I needed!” „What breed?” The rasping voice can’t say enough: „Hehe, he was a local mutt, what pedigree? He’s a certified Vacant Lot. Bravo!” „What’s with you, still with lords and aristocrats?” „I made mince meat of the lot of you in prison once… I was hunting you like rabid dogs – with a baseball bat over the head.” „You have blood on your hands.” „Yeah, and I’m proud of it, God forgive me…” „What has God got to do with it?” „When the brigade used to step out on parade with the flag, the whole town admired us. You have no idea…”
He had come home loaded with baggage. He was carrying some photographic apparatus, a tripod. He was getting ready for a photo shoot somewhere off at the back of hell and gone. He would have to be at the North Station tomorrow at dawn. There wouldn’t be time to stop at the editorial office, so he’d brought everything home. He had his hands full, and he’d knocked the door shut with his knee. Near him, Zgaiba had bounded about happily, but Vivi had needed to put everything down. As it was, he barely made it up the stairs. It was a narrow, unaccommodating flight. With baggage, it was a problem dragging up to the first floor. After depositing his things, he’d stayed in the lab to develop some films. The urgent ones. Then, Vivi went on looking at Zgaiba.
Now he didn’t know how to mourn for him. Having made it back into the courtyard, Vivi sat with his arse on the entrance step, Zgaiba stretched out beside him. He ran his fingers through Zgaiba’s fur. He took him by the legs, pulled him onto the coverlet. He wrapped him up like a child. He took him in his arms, slung him over his shoulder. The courtyard wasn’t empty anymore. Posted on the landing, the tenants were waiting to see what he would do. They watched him in silence. Carrying the dog, he passed right by them. They stood back to give him room. Vivi chose a place at the back of the courtyard. Under a lilac. Near a bush. Summers, Zgaiba like to doze there in the shade. To sleep when the sun beat down too hard. Vivi had photographed him here sometimes – stretched out, lost to this world – between the garage of the neighbour to the south and the garden wall.
Carefully,Vivi set the coverlet down beside him. He hesitated about where to start digging. Head toward the east. Vivi pawed the earth with the tip of the shovel, slowly. He tossed some stones aside. He dug with his head sunk between his shoulders – talking to himself, humming a song, measuring out the movements of the shovel.
Vivi stops for an instant. He looks at the neighbours, a quartet. Frozen under one of the eaves of the building. When did it begin to snow? One of them opened a big black umbrella like a horse blanket, like a canvas sail. The old man from the first floor, leaning on his flag. The old lady, dyed blond, with a something like a mask of flour on her face, in a green dressing gown with hair curlers under her kerchief. This lady’s husband listens to the gentleman from the half-basement. „Let me introduce myself. The name’s Popescu.”
„Who put him…?” „If he’d stayed in the courtyard he’d have lived…” says the old lady, struggling to close the front of her dressing gown. A shiny green dressing gown with big pink chrysanthemums. „Hehe, he chose freedom, and what did it get him? He died before his time! Good behaviour – that’s why obedience pays in the end. You shouldn’t revolt. You shouldn’t venture.” „Better an injection than on a chain. You ever hear of euthanasia?” The gentleman with the flag raised it over the others’ heads, as if it were something on a spear. „It’s a relief. Me, I’m happy waiting to die.” „Bite your tongue.” „The same thing’s waiting for you too, ya know. Or your relatives will kill you out of pity, to get hold of your place. One little prick and it’s torment bye-bye. You wind up in a place full of light, in a green place, in a place of rest from which all pain has flown – all pain and sadness and sighs.” „What’s come over you, Mr. Popescu, to frighten me this way?” „But dog catchers, what do you have to say about them?” „They were on the street yesterday, collaring stray dogs…” „That’s how it was at Stalingrad, you know. We were pickin’ up the dead, froze stiff, with ammunition carts.” „You’re one of them, pal” „What? A corpse?” „A stray dog.” „Let’s find a woman for him.” „A home body…” „Ha, when we were marching in parade, the whole herd followed me… I’ve kept the flag since then. Those were the days, not these! Volunteers! We were dedicating our youth to the fatherland!” „A sad case of masturbation, that’s what it is. Tell me you never jerked off at least once.” „That’s a load of crap, to put it simply…” Goose-stepping on the spot, the gentleman with the flag took up the tune of an old march. He had caps on his boots, and in that courtyard they made a powerful sound. His determined chin jutted out from under his beret… his toothless mouth, his watery eyes.
Vivi jumped into the grave, found it suitable, wiped the dirt off his hands, reached over to a low tap, washed his hands. Cold water, sharp as a knife. Then, he got hold of the coverlet, tried to pull it. No success, so he took Zgaiba in his arms. Zgaiba: wrapped in the coverlet like a child. The dog was heavy. Softly, carefully,Vivi deposited Zgaiba at the bottom of the grave. He stood there waiting for a minute, staring, broke up a lump of sand. He took up the shovel, temporarily forgotten and thrust into the ground a meter away. He cut carefully into the heap of earth and threw it into the hole. He rested his chin on the handle of the shovel. He stared at the grave. Zgaiba was covered in rime. They weren’t parted yet. They still had an instant. „But perhaps the dearly beloved gathered here would like to hear a few heart-felt words.”
„You’re not at church, mate. That’s where you deliver sermons, speeches.” „Let’s hear it for the Party!” „Fuck the Party!” „Still,” Mr. Popescu took a step forward, „what a parting it is, oh my brothers! What lamentation, what mourning there is here now! Thus, come now to kiss the one who was with us a moment ago. For he goes down into the grave, covered with earth, to dwell in the house of darkness, to be buried with the dead. Now as we are parting, all his relatives and friends pray God to give him rest.” „Which one of you farted, mate? Hey, neighbour, you really broke wind… May it do you good…” Saying that, the speaker got down to smell the other guy’s arse. „You’re eating too many beans. That’ll make you foolish…” „The guy with the fart gives him a dig with his elbow.” „Shh, let’s listen!” „Now all the great deceptions and vanities of this life are undone, for the soul has left it’s place, the vessel is broken, the clay has blackened into the earth, voiceless, without feeling, dead, unmoving, for the one we accompany to the grave we pray God to give him peace without end.” „Let me help you!” „Do you know how to sing?” „We were doing it on the front. The Russians were pressing us from behind with bayonets – without shoes in the frost. Siberia. We, prisoners in rags.” „You’re lying, you old crook. What are you rattling on about over there? Which Siberia… I know you. You weren’t on any front. You kept a hotel full of hookers in Braila…” The speaker moved the huge black ragged umbrella aside. The snow fell down on the four of them, buried them, froze them, hid them from view. Vivi could barely make them out behind the curtain of snow. He only heard – tremolo – the pathetic voice of Mr. Popescu, the church singer. He guessed that Mr. Popescu sometimes left him some funeral sweet on the door mat or some twisted funeral breads hanging from the handle of his door. „What is our life?”
Vivi trampled down the earth. He grabbed some flowers from the house and hurried back down the stairs. He scattered chrysanthemums over the earth of the tomb, under which Zgaiba’s body lay. Somehow, he divined the tenants’ faces flattened against the glass, their stares thrust into the back of his neck, his shoulder blades. He stayed like that for minutes on end so that it would snow on him – until he too whitened in his turn. Later, he sat with his arse on the entrance step, never taking his eyes from the grave. Vivi was frozen when he began to cry. He cried like a child. In that dark. In that snowfall. In that cold that comes before Christmas.”
STELIAN TANASE was born in Bucharest in 1952, studied philosophy at the University of Bucharest and published his first novel, The Luxury of Melancholy, in 1982. He has continued to publish fiction while engaging with Romanian politics, co-founding the political magazine 22 in 1990, serving in the Romanian parliament, and campaigning to declassify files kept in the Securitate archives. He currently works as a television presenter and teaches political science at the University of Bucharest. His novel Maestro: A Melodrama appeared this year, and he has recently finished a new novel, Pavlov’s Dogs.
Born in Manhattan, JEAN HARRIS studied literature at Rutgers University. Published works include The One-Eyed Doctor, a biography of Freud’s early life, and a novel, Diffidence. She lives in Bucharest where she writes for Observator Cultural, directs the Observer Translation Project [http://translations.observatorcultural.ro], and is working on a memoir of her time in Romania.
A chapter from the novel „THE GREAT INCENDIARY. Chronicle of various events”
FOTO STELIAN TANASE