I sometimes stop and call to mind the customs and people there used to be in my part of the world at the time when I had, so to speak, just begun to put a foot over the threshold of boyhood in my home in the village of Humuleşti. It faced the town on the other side of the waters of the River Neamţ; it was a large and cheerful village, divided into three closely connected parts: the village itself, the Deleni and the Bejeni. Moreover, Humuleşti in those days was not just a village of ne'er-do-wells but a prosperous and ancient village of freeholders, its reputation and standing having long since been assured, with farmers who knew their job, with stalwart young men and comely girls who could swing in the dance and swing the shuttle too, so that the village would buzz with the sound of looms on every side. It had a fine church and outstanding clergy, church elders and parishioners, who were a credit to their village. As for Father Ion, who lived at the foot of the hill, Lord, what an active and kindly man he was! On his advice lots of trees were planted in the graveyardówhich graveyard was surrounded by a high fence of thick planks with eaves of shinglesóand the fine room at the gate of the church precincts was built to serve as a village school. You should have seen this untiring priest going round the village, entering one house after another, together with one of his elders, Master Vasile, the son of Ilioaia, a sturdy, good-looking, handsome bachelor. The two of them would persuade people to send their children to get some schooling, and you should have seen the number of boys and girls who flocked into the school from all parts, myself among them, a puny, timid lad, afraid of my own shadow!
Now the brightest schoolchild was the priest's own little Smaranda, a mischievous, high-spirited girl, quick-witted and so active that she used to put all the boys to shame in both learning and pranks. However, the priest came to the school almost every day and he saw how things were going. And one fine day it happened that he came to the school carrying a new, long bench. Having enquired of the dominie how we were each getting on, he reflected for a little while, then named the bench Dapple-Grey and left it behind in the school.
Another day, the priest came again into the school, with old Fotea, who used to make sheepskin coats for the village, and who brought a dear little tawse made of leather thongs, all beautifully plaited, as a gift for the new school. The clergyman named it St. Nicholas, after the patron saint of Humuleşti. Then he invited old Fotea, when he came across some good pieces of leather, to make another one from time to time, if possible somewhat thicker and stronger. At that Master Vasile smiled and we schoolchildren stood staring at one another. Then the priest laid down the law and said that there should be revision every Saturday for all the boys and girls, in other words that the dominie should examine each and every one in what had been learned during the week; for each mistake made a stroke should be scored in charcoal on a slate or something and eventually every mistake should bring down a blow from St. Nicholas upon the offending child.
Upon which the priest's daughter, being giddy, thoughtless and full of whims and fancies, suddenly burst out laughing. So much the worse for her, poor thing! "Just come out here, young lady, and mount Dapple-Grey," said the priest now quite sternly, "and let us put St. Nicholas, who's hanging from the nail up there, to his proper business!" In spite of old Fotea's pleading and that of Master Vasile, little Smaranda got a good hiding and afterwards sat crying into her cupped hands like a bride, so that the very blouse shook on her back. When we saw this, we were quite dumbfounded.
Meanwhile, from time to time, the priest would bring small coins and cakes from the church offerings and give each his share, so that he tamed us, and the work went ahead like wildfire. The boys set up a fresh blackboard each day, and on Saturdays there was revision.
We still went our own ways occasionally, there's no doubt about that! Starting with the sheet of paper stuck into a wooden holder, a sheet bearing the sign of the Blessed Cross and the letters of the alphabet, written out by Master Vasile for each one of us, we passed on to the shorter catechism and from thence to the breviary, and from then on we were well away! When priest and teacher were absent, we would go into the churchyard, keeping the prayerbook open; as the leaves were somewhat greasy, the flies and the bumblebees would come to them in swarms, and when we suddenly clapped the book shut, we killed off ten or twenty of them at one blow. What wholesale destruction we wrought upon the race of flies!
One day what should come into the priest's head but to inspect our prayerbooks. Seeing them all bloodstained, he clutched his head in horror. As soon as he found out how they had got into this shocking state, he summoned each one of us in turn to Dapple-Grey's back and began to belabour us with St. Nicholas, bishop in partibus, as retribution for the pains the martyred flies and the holy bumble-bees had suffered at our hands.
Not long after this, one day in the month of May, close upon the Whitsun Moşi1 festival, the Evil One prompted Master Vasile, the blockhead, for I have no better word for him, to appoint a fellow called Nică, Costache's son, to test my knowledge. Nică, who was older than me and whose scholarship was a trifle more than non-existent, had quarrelled with me on account of little Smaranda, whom, one day, with every sign of regret, I had been forced to shove away because she would interfere with my catching flies. So Nică began to examine me, and just went on examining and examining and didn't he just score mistakes wholesale on a piece of shingle: one, two, three, and so on up to twenty-nine! "My word, this is past a joke," I said to myself. "He has not yet finished examining me, and think of all the mistakes to come!" All of a sudden, everything went black in front of me and I began to tremble with anger. "Well, well, I am in a hole! What's to be done about it?" I kept asking myself. Slyly I glanced at the door of salvation and kicked my heels impatiently, waiting for some loiterer outside to come in, for there was a school rule that two people should not walk out at the same time. My heart was fit to burst within me seeing that no one would come in and give me a chance of escaping mounting Dapple-Grey and receiving the blessing of St. Nicholas, that dispenser of black and blue. Yet the true St. Nicholas seems to have been mindful of me, for, lo and behold, that blessed boy walked into the schoolroom. Whereupon, by your leave or not, I made for the door, slipped out quickly, and, with no hanging about the school, took to my heels homewards! A glance over my shoulder showed me two hulking brutes already on my tracks. Then didn't I just start running so fast that my feet struck sparks out of the ground! I passed our house without going in, I turned left and entered the yard of one of our neighbours; from the yard I went into the stableyard, and from the stableyard into the maize field, newly hoed and earthed up, with the boys after me. Before they reached me, scared out of my wits as I was, I somehow managed to burrow into the mound at the root of a maize stalk. My enemy, Nică, Costache's son, with Toader, Catinca's son, an equally loathsome brute, passed by me, saying just what they were going to do to me. Surely the Lord blinded them, so that they could not find me! After a while, hearing no rustling of maize leaves, not even a hen scratching the ground, I suddenly darted out, with earth on my head, and rushed home to mother and began telling her with tears in my eyes that I would not go back to school, no, not if they were to kill me. The next day, however, the priest came to our house and settled things with father; they calmed me down and took me back to school again. "For really, it's a pity to be left without any education," the priest was saying; "you are now past your ABC, you're working on the prayerbook, and, one of these days, you'll go on to the psalter, which is the key to all wisdom. And who can tell what time has in store for us? Maybe you'll live to become the priest here, at the church of St. Nicholas, because it's for the likes of you that I take the pains I do. I have an only daughter, and I shall think seriously about my choice of a son-in-law."
Heigh ho! Once I heard of the priesthood and of our priest's little Smaranda, I gave up the flies completely and turned my thoughts to other things. I began to take to writing, to preparing the censer in church, to singing second, as if I were a respectable youngster. The priest put me down in his good books and little Smaranda flashed a glance at me now and then; Master Vasile entrusted the coaching of other boys to me, and, as the saying goes, a different kind of flour was now being ground in the old mill. Nică, Costache's son, loutish and bullying, with his grating voice, had no further hold over me. But man proposes and God disposes!
One day, in actual fact it was St. Foca's Day, the mayor ordered the villagers out to repair the road. The rumour went that the Prince was going to ride that way to visit the monasteries. Master Vasile found nothing better to do than to say: "Come on, boys, let's help with that road, so that the Prince shan't say, as he passes through, that our village is lazier than the others."
So we all set out from school together. Some of us dug with spades, some carried stones in wheel-barrows, some in carts, some in kneading-troughs; in short, the people worked with a will. The mayor Nică, son of Petrica, with the overseer, the deputy-mayor and a couple of tousle-headed clerks, were moving to and fro among the people, when, all of a sudden, what should we see but a scuffle on the gravel, a crowd of people in a confused heap and one of them yelling out loudly. "What can this mean?" people were saying, as they ran from all sides.
Master Vasile had been caught with a lasso by the press-gang; they were now roping him tight and handcuffing him, preparatory to sending him off to the town of Piatra. So that's why the mayor had summoned the people to communal labour! This was the way with deceptions such as these, that young men were in those days press-ganged into military service... This was an evil sight indeed! The other young men vanished instantly, and as for us children, back we went to our homes, crying. "Curse that dog of a mayor, and, as he has seared a mother's heart, so may today's saint, Foca, burn his heart within him and the hearts of all his accomplices too!" wailed the women of the village, cursing and weeping scalding tears, on all sides. Meanwhile Master Vasile's mother was seeing her son to Piatra and bewailing him as if he were dead. "Never mind, mother, the world is not just the size of the bit of it we can see with our own eyes," Master Vasile was saying to comfort her. "A man can live in the army as well as anywhere, if there's mettle in him. St. George and St. Dmitri and other holy martyrs were soldiers too, who suffered for the love of Christ; pray God we may live up to their example!"
Well, well, we'd lost Master Vasile; he had gone where fate decreed.
Father Ion was now walking about, his long locks floating in the wind, looking for another dominie, but he failed to find a second Master Vasile, quiet, hard working, and as shy as a maid. There was, of course, Iordache, the elder in the front pew, who spoke through his nose; but what good was he? True, he had got the church chants2 by heart, but he was so old that his teeth chattered and, moreover, he was overfond of his drink. So the school stood deserted for a time. For some of us who clung to Father Ion things went none too badly: it is the church that enlightens a man.
On Sundays we would hum away in the pew and, slap! bang! there was a cake for each of us pinched from the offerings! When the eve of each of the two great festivals came round, some thirty or forty boys would run before the priest, wearing a path through the snow between one house and the next. At Christmas we would neigh like foals, while on Twelfth Night we would bawl the Kirie Eleison until the village resounded. As Father Ion approached, we would stand in two lines and make way for him. Then he would pull his beard and say proudly to the host: "These are the clergyman's foals3, my son. They look forward joyfully to great festive days like these throughout the whole year. Have you cooked broad beans, forcemeat balls, hemp tarts and cabbage pies for them?" "We have, indeed, holy Father. Please come in and bless our house, and please sit yourselves down so that matchmakers and suitors may do likewise." No sooner did we hear a meal mentioned than we fell to. Look out, mouth, here's food coming! As the saying goes: Pies make the mouth rejoice, and cabbage pies even more.
Our behaviour was only natural, since there are only two such festive eves in the year. At one place, I remember, we crowded round so enthusiastically that we knocked the table over, dishes and all, in the middle of the room, bringing furious blushes to our priest's cheeks. Yet all he said, very good-naturedly, was: "Where nothing is spread, there's nothing to spill, my sons, but a little restraint wouldn't come amiss!"
Then, when the patronal festival came round, the feasting would last a whole week. All you wanted was a belly in which to stow away the corn-meal cake4 and the various viands, so numerous were they. Elders and priests and bishops and all sorts of people from every part came together at this festival at Humuleşti, and they all left highly content. What is more, a lot of strangers were well received in private houses. Mother, God rest her soul, rejoiced greatly when visitors happened to drop in and there was occasion to break bread with them. "Perhaps my sons will bestow alms in memory of me, when I am dead, and perhaps they won't; it's better to bestow them with my own hand. Anyhow, near is my shirt, but nearer is my skin! It wouldn't be the first time it happened!"
While I was learning at school, mother was keeping up with me at home, and she was reading the prayer-book, the psalter and the Book of Alexander5 better than I could, and she greatly rejoiced when she saw that I took to book learning.
As for my father, he would often tease me:
If he had had his way I might well have stayed where I was well off, like Nică, Stefan's son and Petre's grandson, a very decent fellow and a farmer in Humuleşti. As the saying goes: Better a big fish in a little pond than a small tiddler in the ocean.
Mother, however, would gladly have spun the distaff had that been necessary to enable me to go on with book learning, and she was constantly nagging father to send me to school again somewhere else; for in church she had heard the saying from Proverbs that the learned man should have wisdom and be a master to the unlearned, who should serve him.
Moreover all the old women who read the future in forty-one maize grains thrown into a sieve, all who dabbled in astrology, all the people who told fortunes by cards, whom she had consulted on my behalf, all the church-going women of the village had stuffed her head full of fantasies, each stranger than the other, such as: that I should dwell among the great, that I had more luck than a frog has hair, that I had an angelic voice, and many such wonders. As a result of all this mother, in the weakness she had for me, had come to believe that I should turn out a second Cucuzel, that ornament of Christendom, who could draw tears out of every stony heart, collect together innumerable hosts of people in the depths of the forest and gladden the entire creation with his song.
"Great heavens, woman, you're mightily lacking in judgment," father used to say, seeing her so passionately wrapped up in my future. "If they were all to turn out full of book learning, as you think they should, there'd be no one left to pull off our boots. Haven't you heard the story of the chap that went to Paris, wherever that may be? He went an ox and came back a cow! Now, there's Grigore, son of Petre and grandson of Luca, in our village. What schools did he go to to learn to make such witty speeches and to act as usher-and reciter of the nuptial poem at weddings? Can't you see that if a fellow has no nous, he just hasn't, and that's the end of the matter?"
"Maybe it is, maybe it isn't," mother said. "I want my boy to be a priest, and what have you to say against that?"
"A priest, eh! no less," said father. "Really, now! Can't you see that for a lousy, lazy good-for-nothing he has no equal? The struggle you have to get him up in the morning! And as soon as you've got him up, he clamours for food. Now that he's small, he catches flies in his prayer book and goes up and down the riverbanks all day long looking for bathing-places, instead of leading those horses out to graze and helping me with various jobs, as far as he is able. In winter he's for ever on the ice and the sledge runs. You and your fancy education have got him into a bad way. As soon as he's grown up a bit he'll begin sniffing at a skirt, and, as things are, he'll never be any good to me!"
So, as I have the honour to tell you, there was much talk going on between mother and father on account of me, until that summer, round about August, the Right Honourable cholera of 1848 stepped in and began working such havoc on the people of Humuleşti, right and left, that there was nothing to be heard save weeping and sorrow.
As for myself, little devil that I was, I used to stand by the fence when they drove the hearse past our gate and chant a jingle over the dead man:
Or again, I would walk in the procession to the church and return with my shirt stuffed full of pretzels, sour-sweetish apples, walnuts in tinsel, carobs and dried figs from the dead man's tree, so laden that my father and mother crossed themselves with wonder when they saw me with such goodies. To get me out of harm's way, they sent me to the sheepfold in the coppice of Agapia, close by the bridge of Cărăgiţa, where our own sheep were grazing, to stay there until the sickness had abated somewhat; but the very same night the cholera struck me down, tearing at my bowels and causing me to double up in two, as if in a vice. My vitals were burning within me for thirst, yet the shepherds and their chief took no notice at all; I screamed and they just turned over in their sleep and snored on. So I crept as best I could to the well behind the sheepfold and drank a pailful of water in no time. The well deserved the name of my headquarters that night, and I never closed my eyes long enough for a spark to be struck from a flint.
It was only at daybreak that Vasile Bordeianu, our joiner, took pity on me and went to Humuleşti, two hours' walk away, and told father, who came with a horse and cart to fetch me home. All the way I never stopped asking for water, while father wheedled me out of it from one well to another, till at last, with God's help, we reached Humuleşti.
When we got here, the village healers, old Vasile Tandură and another fellow whose name I can't remember, were in the house heating some skins of pressed grapes in tallow in a great cauldron upon the fire. After they had given me a thorough good rub with lovage macerated in vinegar, they spread the warm husks upon a piece of cloth and swaddled me up as they would a baby. In no time at all I fell into a dead sleep and did not wake up until vespers on the following dayóas fit as a fiddle. God rest old Tandură and his helper! As the proverb has it: A bad penny always turns up. Before nightfall I had already gone the round of the village, and even had a look at the bathing-place with my friend Kiriac, son of Goian, a lazybones and a ne'er-do-well like myself. But father never said a word to me then. He left me to my own devices for the time being.
During the winter mother was again on at father to send me to school somewhere; but father said there was no more money to be spent on me.
"I used to pay just one sorocovăţ6 a month to Vasile, the church elder, son of Vasilca, while that scamp Simion Fosa, the church elder from Tutuieni, wants three husaşi7 a month just because he talks in riddles and takes snuff all day long. I ask you! This boy, clothes and all, is not worth as many husaşi as he's cost me so far!"
When mother heard that, she blew up.
"You poor fool! Since you have not a scrap of book learning, how can you understand? When you're putting away those sorocoveţi under your moustaches, that's the time to make a fuss! Hasn't Petre, son of Todosica, our publican, had nine hundred lei8 off you, and Vasile Roibu, in Bejeni, and many others of the same kidney, almost as many? Isn't there plenty and to spare for Rusca, Valică's wife, and Onofrei's Măriuca? I know more than you think. Don't you believe that Smaranda's asleep. You're a fine one to sleep the sleep of the just, you are! So, you've no money to spend on your own son! Listen, my man, you'll plunge to the bottom of hell and there'll be no one to get you out, if you don't do your best to get one of your sons to be a priest. You avoid confession as the devil avoids incense. You don't go to church from one Easter Sunday to the next. Is that your way of looking after your soul?"
"Now do be quiet, woman! The church is in a man's conscience, and when I'm dead, I'll lie by the church for ever," father said. "Don't you carry on in this way like the hypocritical Pharisee. Rather beat your breast and say as the publican did: Lord, be gracious unto me a sinner who am worrying the life out of my husband and wasting my breath in vain."
In the end, after all the argument between mother and father on my account, mother won the day; for on the last Sunday before Lent, mother's father, that was my grandfather David Creangă from Pipirig, came to our house and seeing the difference that had arisen between father and mother on account of me, he said:
"Never you mind, Stefan and Smărănduca, leave off worrying; today is Sunday, tomorrow Monday and market day, but Tuesday if we reach it hale and hearty, I'll take my grandson along with me to Broteni, with my son Dumitru, to Neculai Nanu, the master of the school founded by Baloş; and you just wait and see what he makes of this boy, for I was highly satisfied with what my other sons Vasile and Gheorghe were taught. These twenty years that I've been mayor at Pipirig, I've only had difficulty with the accounts. What's the good of my reading any ecclesiastical book? If you can't put things down in writing, be it never so little, it's hard. But since my sons have been back from school they keep the accounts for me, every blessed coin, and I just take it easy; I now say with complete confidence that you may be mayor for a lifetime and never feel it a burden. My word, a good deed Alecu Baloş has done with that school of his for anyone who'll take the trouble to learn; and, Lord, what a wise and capable teacher he has found! He talks so gently and he receives everyone so kindly that it is a pleasure to visit him. He's a credit to the parents who bore him. Such a kindly soul of a man, there's no gainsaying it. And for us mountain people particularly it is a great blessing! More than sixty years ago, when I came with father and my brothers Petrea, Vasile and Nică from Transylvania to Pipirig, such schools were not to be found. Maybe at Jassy or at the Neamţ monastery there might have been some such thing in the time of the Metropolitan Jacob; he was distantly related to us through Ciubuc, the bell-ringer at Neamţ, your mother's grandfather, daughter Smaranda, whose name stands engraved to this day upon the church bell in Pipirig. Ciubuc, the bellringer, had learned his letters in Transylvania, like myself, and then he left those parts and wandered away, as we did; he came over here with his belongings, like old Dediu of Vinatori and other mocani9 mainly to avoid being turned into a papist, as far as I know. He was so comfortably off that his sheepfolds and herds of cattle spread over mountain after mountain: Hălăuca, Iepure's Crag, Dărnariul, Cotnărelul and Boampele away behind Pătru Vodă. This Ciubuc was said to be a decent, generous fellow; every traveller who stopped at his house was hospitably received and fare in plenty was placed before him. He was famous far and wide for his kindness and riches. The Prince himself is reported to have once put up at his house, and upon his asking with what men he held together such a sea of belongings Ciubuc is said to have answered: "With those weak of mind but strong of body, your Highness." Then the Prince could hardly conceal his surprise and he said: "Now here's a man indeed, I'll vouch for it. Were there many such under me, the country would be safe in time of need." And the Prince gave him a friendly tap on the shoulder saying to him:
"Nuncle, remember that you're my man from now on, and my door is always open to you."
From that time on Ciubuc was known as the Prince's man, so that to this day, a certain hill over by the Plotun, where Ciubuc was usually to be found, is called Man's Hill.
Upon this hill, daughter Smaranda, we took refuge at the time of the 1821 uprising, with your mother, yourself and your brother Ion, scared off by a band of Turks who had been recently fighting the volunteers at Secu and were then making their way to Pipirig in search of plunder; and, being in such a hurry, we had left behind your baby sister Mariuca in her wooden cradle, upon the verandah. When your mother discovered that the child was missing, she began to tear the hair of her head and to bewail her in a subdued voice, saying:
"Woe is me, woe is me, my child has been stabbed to death by the Turks!"
I then climbed to the very top of a fir tree and as soon as I saw the Turks turning towards Plotun I madly jumped upon the back of a horse, galloped home and found the baby safe and sound, but cradle and all had been overturned by some pigs who were rootling around, ready to tear her to pieces. At one end of the cradle I found a few Turkish coins, which the Turks, as it seemed, had placed by the child's head. Then I picked the child up and I was so overjoyed that I don't know how I got back to your mother on Man's Hill. When I had recovered a bit, I said bitterly like many another before me: "Those who have no children do not know what trouble is." Some people are sensible in this respect and stay unmarried. One such person was Ciubuc, the sheepowner, who later on in life, having no wife and child, moved by his deep piety or by other circumstances, made over all his goods and chattels to the Neamţ monastery and became a monk with almost all his herdsmen, chanting many a mass during his lifetime; and now he rests in peace under the walls of the monastery, may the Lord's grace be upon him, and may he rest in peace in the kingdom of heaven! For we, too, shall make our way thither very soon! Now, you'd have had no inkling of all those happenings if I hadn't told you, would you?" grandfather said with a sigh.
"It's a good thing, my son, that your boy should have some book learning, not necessarily in order to be ordained, as Smaranda plans, for a priest's calling is an exacting business and difficult to fulfil, and if he's not to be the right sort, better none at all. Yet book learning brings some consolation in itself. If I hadn't been able to read, I should long since have been out of my mind with all the troubles I've had to bear. But I have only to open the Lives of the Saints and therein do I find all kinds of things and I say: 'Lord, great is the endurance that Thou hast granted Thy chosen ones. Our hardships are child's play compared to what we read about in the books.' Besides, it's no good for anyone to be a complete ignoramus. There is much wisdom to be got out of books and, truth to tell, you're no longer just a cow for anyone to milk. The boy, as I can judge, has a good memory, and considering the amount of schooling he has had he sings and reads as well as one could wish."
These and other such things grandfather David talked over with mother and father all through the night from Sunday to Monday and Monday to Tuesday; for he used to stay with us when he came from Piping to market, to buy the things he needed.
On Tuesday at daybreak he placed the wooden saddles and the pairs of bags across the horses' backs; then neatly tying the bridle of the second to the tail of the first, the third to the tail of the second, the fourth to the tail of the third, as mountain people do, he said:
"Now, you two, Stefan and Smaranda, God keep you in good health, for I'm about to set off. Come, grandson, are you ready?"
"Ready, grandfather, off we go!" I said, giving my full attention to some smoked pork chops and some fried sausages that mother had placed before me.
Taking leave of my parents I proceeded with grandfather on my way to Pipirig. There was a bit of a frost that morning sharp enough to split wood. And just above VÓnători, as we were crossing the bridge over a tributary of the River Neamţ, grandfather walking behind holding the horses' bridles, myself walking in front of him, my boots slipped and I fell full length into the Ozana! Thank God grandfather was there! "Now, those worn-out boots of yours are just too silly," he said, quickly lifting me out of the water, soaked to the skin and frozen to the bone for water had leaked in everywhere.
He quickly took off my shoes, which were frozen stiff. "A good old-fashioned wrap-around boot's the thing! Your foot feels comfortable in it and when it's frosty you're as snug as can be." In the time it took to say this I found myself already wrapped up in a fluffy shepherd's coat from Casina, crammed into a bag on horseback, on and away to Pipirig. And when grandmother saw me and the state I was in, stuck in that bag like some waif, she nearly dissolved into tears. Never yet have I seen such a woman, to cry over every little thing; she was soft-hearted beyond all measure. She did not eat meat, ever, for the same reason, and on holy days, when she went to church, she wept for all the dead in the churchyard, kin or strangers, it made no difference. Grandfather, however, was an extremely level-headed fellow; he minded his business as he saw fit and left grandmother to her own devices, like the mere woman that she was.
"Good Lord, David, what will you be up to next? Why ever must you fetch the boy out in this weather?"
"Just to give you something to marvel at, Nastasia," grandfather said, fetching a wild boar's hide out of the lumber room and cutting out a pair of wrap-around boots for Dumitru and another for myself. Then he gathered them nicely and threaded a pair of horse-hair bindings through the little hooks.
On the next day but one, provided with clean underwear and two pairs of foot wrappings made of stiff white cloth, we slipped on our new boots and having kissed grandmother's hand, we took the Boboeşti road, with grandfather once more as well as Dumitru, mother's youngest brother. After climbing behind the Hălăuca, we eventually reached Fărcaşa, and that was our resting place for the night. Our company there was father Dumitru from a place called Pirăul CÓrjei, who had a goitre upon his neck as big as a large wine flask, and he would cackle and drone like a bagpipe so that I got not a wink of sleep on account of him all night long. He was not to blame, poor man, and as he himself used to say: "Those who have a goitre in the head are worse off than those who wear it outwardly."
Next day we left Fărcaşa, passing through Borca to the Stream of CÓrja and CotÓrgeni and so on till we reached Broşteni. Having placed us in lodgings at his own expense, in the house of a woman whose name was Irinuca, grandfather then took us to call upon the teacher, took us to the church and made us cross ourselves before all the icons and then left us with his blessing and went home, occasionally sending us what was needful.
Now the village of Broşteni being spread out like most mountain villages, the wolf was not shy of putting in an appearance in broad daylight. The houses were dotted about irregularly, one under a steep hollow bank, another beyond the Bistriţa nestling in another such ravine, in short, wherever man found it convenient to build a house. Irinuca had an old hut, built of wooden logs, with windows as broad as the palm of your hand, roofed with planks, fenced in with roughhewn pieces of fir, standing right under a steep descent, on the left bank of the Bistriţa, close to the bridge. Irinuca was a woman neither very young nor very old; she had a husband, as well as a daughter, so ugly, cross-eyed and dowdy that you were afraid to spend the night under the same roof with her. Fortunately from Monday morning till Saturday night she was not to be seen. She went up the mountains with her father wood-chopping, and she would work there like a man all the week long for practically nothing, Conditions were such that two people with two oxen could hardly earn their keep in winter time. Nay, it happened to many a man that he came back of a Saturday night with a broken leg or with his oxen badly hurt, and this he had to accept into the bargain!
The hut on the left bank of the Bistriţa, the man, the girl and the oxen in the woods, one hilly-goat and two lean scabby nannies which always slept in the lobby, that was Irinuca's whole fortune. Yet that really is a fortune when you're strong and healthy. But what business is that of mine? Let us rather get back to our own business.
The very next day, after grandfather had gone back home, we two went to school. The teacher seeing that we wore our hair long ordered one of the scholars to cut it off. When we heard those dread words, we began to cry our hearts out and to beg in the name of all the gods, that we should not be made frights of. But no, we had mistaken our man; the teacher stood by and had our heads cropped close. Then we joined the ranks of the other pupils and he set up things to learn according to our ability; among other things we had to get "The angel cried aloud" by heart.
We went on like that right into mid-Lent.
One fine morning we woke up covered from head to toe with goats' scab, caught from Irinuca's goats. Heyday, what was to be done? The teacher couldn't have us in the schoolroom, Irinuca could not cure us, there was nobody to let grandfather know, our provisions were almost eaten upóan evil plight indeed!
I don't quite know how it came about but close upon the Day of the Annunciation a sudden spell of warm weather set in, such as you've never seen the like of; and the snow melted, and the streams flowed and the Bistriţa swelled between its two banks nearly carrying Irinuca's house away.
And during those warm days we would anoint our bodies with newly boiled lye, would then lie in the sun till the ashes stood dry upon our skins and then step into the Bistriţa and bathe. An old woman had taught us this as a means of getting rid of the scab. You can imagine what it meant to bathe twice a day in the Bistriţa at Broşteni, before Easter. Neither shooting pains, nor ague, nor any other sickness did we get, nor did we get rid of the scab for that matter. As the saying goes: it clings to a man, like the scab.
One day Irinuca having gone into the village where she would lose all sense of time, what should we do but climb the steep slope behind her house, each carrying a roughhewn plank in our hands; the streams were coming down something wonderful, one particularly as white as boiling milk. The devil prompted us to shift a rock that was precariously balanced, whereupon the boulder started capering down and bouncing head high, and it went right through Irinuca's fence and the lobby where the goats lived and made straight for the Bistriţa, setting the waters a-boiling! This happened on St. Lazarus's Day about noon. What in Heaven's name was to be done? The woman's fence and house smashed to bits, a she-goat crushed to pieces, that was no joke! Scab and all were now forgotten in this fright.
"Be quick and get your things together before the old woman comes and let us run away and catch that raft to my brother Vasile's at Borca," said Dumitru, since the rafts were already on the move.
We caught up what few things we had, hurried down to the rafts and the raftsmen readily agreed and cast off. What Irinuca said behind our backs, what she didn't, I do not know; one thing I do know is that I was scared stiff all the way to Borca which was the goal of our voyage. And next day, which was Palm Sunday, we left Borca at daybreak in the company of two peasants from the mountains, riding their horses; we cut across the Old Highlands way down to Pipirig. That Sunday was a fine day and the peasants were saying that they had never seen such an early spring, not since they were born.
Dumitru and I never stopped singing, gathering bluebells and violets on the hill side, playing and capering as if we had nothing in common with those scabby fellows in Broşteni who had worked such blessings upon Irinuca's house. And as we were going along like this, about noon the fine weather suddenly changed into a fearful whirlwind, which literally brought fir trees crashing to the ground. Maybe old Mother Dochia10 had not taken off all her sheepskin coats.
It began to drizzle, it turned to sleet, then it grew cold and started to snow in earnest and in a twinkling the road was blocked and there was no knowing which way to turn. There was snow and mist everywhere, so that a man could not see his companion though they were walking side by side.
"We've given the weather the evil eye," one of the peasants said with a sigh. "I did think it strange that the wolf should have swallowed the winter so speedily. We've lost our way round about the weaning folds. Now let us cut across country at random and go where fate takes us."
"I seem to hear a cock crowing," the other man said. "Let us go that way, maybe we'll come across some village."
Down we went and down again, with great difficulty down perilous slopes, getting tangled in the undergrowth of a fir copse and the horses would slip and roll downhill. Dumitru and I walked shivering and crying into our fists with cold. The peasants just groaned and bit their lips in anguish. The snow was waist-deep in certain places and night had begun to fall when we came to a dead end in the mountains where one could hear the streamlet running, like ourselves, from the uplands into the valley, rushing and crashing against the rocks, whether it would or no. The only difference being that it went its way while we came to a standstill and were really in a desperate plight.
"Now boys, let us lie down and sleep it off," one of the men said, getting to work with his flint and tinder and setting a fir-tree alight.
"Whatever is ordained stands written upon a man's brow; make merry and be of good cheer," the other one said taking a large piece of cold mămăliga11 out of his saddlebag, toasting it lightly upon the cinders and giving us a piece each. That piece of mămăliga slipped more easily down our gullets than if it had been buttered! When we had done something to appease our hunger we curled up round the fire; snow overhead, sludge underneath; one side of us was freezing, the other baking as befitted the time and place.
And while we were thus tossing about, another trouble lay in store: the burning fir-tree very nearly scorched us to death, and we were only saved thanks to one of the mountain fellows. Maybe Irinuca's curse had now come upon us.
Day broke at last, and, having rubbed our bodies with snow and crossed ourselves according to the custom of Christians, we set off with the two peasants climbing back all the way we had come. The snow was not falling so thickly now and after a good deal of trouble we found our way. On and on we trudged and towards nightfall we reached grandfather David's at Pipirig. And no sooner did grandmother see us than she burst into tears of joy.
"I verily believe this David of mine will bring me to the grave with his goings on. Just look at the sores on them, poor darlings! The scab has eaten into them among those strangers, poor lambs!"
After she had sympathized with us and wept over us, as it was her wont to do, and after she had crammed us full of the choicest things she had to eat, she went into the pantry, fetched a jugful of birch ointment, annointed our bodies from top to toe and bade us lie upon the stove and keep warm. She rubbed the ointment into us two or three times a day and during the night as well, so that on Good Friday we were as fit and smoothskinned as ever. By that time tidings had also come, from Broşteni, of the havoc we had wrought there and grandfather, without protesting too much, settled with Irinuca for four gold ducats. Then, on Black Saturday, he sent me home to Humuleşti, and on Easter Day I sang out such an "Angel cried aloud" in church, that the whole congregation gaped at me, and mother felt like swallowing me whole with joy. Father Ion sat me down at table with him, and little Smaranda cracked plenty of red eggs with me12, and joys of all sorts were pouring down upon me.
Yet the second Easter service was not such a success, for all the girls in the village had come to church; some of them being more frivolous, burst out laughing as soon as ever they set eyes on me and kept on chanting:
Bucharest, September, 1880
1Mosi: literally "ancestors." Festival in commemoration of the dead held on Whit Saturday, and the occasion of a great Whitsuntide fair.
2The eight fundamental melodies at the basis of church singing in the Greek Orthodox service.
3It is usual in Romanian for young boys to be called foals or colts.
4A dish of boiled grain, honey and walnuts carried at the head of a funeral procession and later divided among the mourners.
5A chap-book containing a fantastic account of the life and conquests of Alexander the Great of Macedonia, derived from a popular book of the Middle Ages.
6A Russian coin that also circulated in Moldavia.
7A Hungarian coin, also current in Moldavia.
8leu, plural lei: the monetary unit of Romania.
9Wealthy sheep-rearing Transylvanian peasants; Transylvanian shepherds in the Carpathians.
10According to popular belief the end of winter was symbolised by Mother Dochia taking off her sheepskin coats one by one over the first nine or twelve days of March. When the last coat was off, winter was really over.
11Kind of hominy. This was, and still is, a stock item in the diet of a Romanian peasant.
12Greek Orthodox custom accompanied by the words: "Christ is risen!" to which the reply is: "He is risen indeed!"