(Childhood Memories)
by Ion Creangă
Part IV


As the mountain bear will not leave its lair, the peasant from the hills his field, nor the babe be taken from its mother's breast, so was it hard for me, even with all my mother's pleadings, to leave Humuleşti that autumn of the year 1855, when the time came for me to go to Socola. And why wouldn't I leave Humuleşti for the world, when mother was telling me that it was for my own good? This is the reason why: as God would have it, I was no longer a boy, alas! And the town of Jassy, that I had never seen, was not close to Neamţ, like Fălticeni, from where in the late autumn or during the Christmas carnival, when the nights were long, I was able to run home from time to time. I would slip away about vespers and walk apace on moonlit nights, with my friends, going to the nightly gatherings that we knew of at Humuleşti walking post-haste all the way like coach horses. After dancing a while, we were wont to give a kiss on the sly to some of the more flighty girls, and vanishing from the village before daylight, would be back in Fălticeni about lunchtime; on each of the journeys there and back we would wade across the ford barefoot, opposite the Baths, the river Moldova being frozen along its banks so that the very marrow within our bones would be numb! But our hearts were warm for whatever we planned would come true! From Neamţ to Fălticeni and from Fălticeni to Neamţ was just child's play for us in those days.

But this was a different story: the short distance of two post-miles1 from Fălticeni to Neamţ was a very different matter from the six long and tiresome post-miles, neither more, nor less, from Jassy to Neamţ. Nor am I just trying to be funny when I say that from Neamţ to Jassy is the same distance exactly as from Jassy to Neamţ. Far better for you to stay here, Ion, my boy, I was thinking in my simple mind, than weep disconsolate and wither away pining for the love of someone I could name! Yet there is a saying: A bear will not dance of its own accord. There was no choice open to me, I had to do what my mother was urging, I had to depart, whether I liked it or not, and leave behind all I loved!

Dear to my heart was our village with the smooth-flowing crystal-clear Ozana, wherein the Neamţ Castle has sadly been mirroring its face for so many centuries! Dear to my heart were father and mother, brothers and sisters and the youngsters of the village, my youthful companions, with whom on frosty winter days we had had such fun sliding and sledging on the ice; while in summer, on holidays, when the weather was fine, singing and shouting, we'd scour the woods and shady glades, the banks where we sunned ourselves, and the bathing places, the fields and the crops, the plains with lovely flowers and the stately hills from beyond which dawn and hope would beckon at that lusty time of youth! I loved too the nightly gatherings, the evening working sessions, the dances and all the village merry-makings, wherein I joined with the utmost zest! Even if you had been a block of stone, you couldn't have sat still when you heard Mihai, the fiddler of Humuleşti, walking the village in the dead of night with a crowd of young fellows in his wake, singing:

Tender leaf of springtime green,
In the hours of darkness keen
A nightingale within the glade
Sang as sweet as any maid,
And so moving was her tone
That the leaves would flutter down;

Sad and tender was her strain
To those who ne'er would meet again;
Sighs and trills she ceaseless makes
Piercing deep the heart that breaks.

So many were the songs the fiddler would sing and play upon his sweet-sounding fiddle! And so many the other merry-makings in the village, that the whole year seemed one long holiday! Which reminds me of an old woman's saying: God's blessing upon us and a yearful of holidays, and only one work-day, and that a celebration or a wedding. And now you're thinking of leaving your village, my boy, with its charm and its beauty, and going to that strange and faraway place, if your wretched heart will let you! And I tried very hard to make mother understand that I might pine and sicken for love of her, and even die among strangers, that my cousin Ion Mogorogea, Gheorghe Trăsnea and Nică Oşlobanu had given up study and that they were still eating their bread in their parents' house for all that. But it was useless work! Mother had other plans in her mind; she carefully prepared all the necessaries and eventually said to me in deadly earnest:

"Ion, you must always keep your good name and never abandon peace for strife! You'll go where I say. Gītlan's Zaharia will go with you. Old Luca, our neighbour, is going to drive you in his cart, with his two fiery steeds. Come now, run along to his house and see if he's ready to go. For tomorrow at daybreak you're setting out, God willing."

"I won't mother, I'm not going to Socola, not if you kill me," I said crying my eyes out. "People have lived and they still do without being ordained."

"It's no good whining, my lad!" said mother quite unmoved. "It won't work with me. You know by now the way I am. Don't drive me too hard or I'll fetch that stick from behind the chimney and put it across you, big as you are!"

Then she called father and said to him firmly:

"Do tell this boy what he must be told, so that he'll stop wishing we'll change our minds, and get himself ready for his journey."

"There's no question about that," father said gloomily. "He shall do as we say, not as he wishes, for he's not independent yet. If that were my only care, good woman, I'd have no care in the world. But how to meet the expense, that's what's worrying me; for money does not lie about like fire-wood. These six or more besides him, who're staying behind, will they live on nothing? Yet he, being the eldest, it's his privilege; we've got to try and get him launched, for you never know the sum of man's days! And maybe sometime he'll be a help to the others!"

Seeing there was no way of resisting their decision, I began to think of my departure, but sorrowfully reflecting in my mind: "I really am up against a brick wall! Our village priests have never been through the Socola school and God's grace! Their belts won't meet round their fat bellies! As to monks, they're a crowd of lazybones and rakes from all the four quarters, who've settled in these monasteries and to what heights will they not rise? But when it comes to me, I have to go through so many schools: at Humuleşti, at Broşteni in the very heart of the mountains, at Neamţ, at Fălticeni and now at Socola, just to be permitted to become a miserable priest, with a wife and children; really, it's asking too much!"

I very nearly told mother that I'd turn monk at Neamţ or at Secu, and with the amount of learning I had, or had not, I might, in a few years' time, become superintendent in some small monastery and lay by a tubful of gold coins such as Father Kirilaş, of Vīnătorii Neamţului, ammassed from carting wood.

And then—Holy Ilarie—you just sling your flask of arrack on your hip, shove plenty of fresh caviar and some more tasty morsels in your great-coat pockets, stick your pistols in your belt beneath your monk's frock, and tilt your hat over one ear; then armed with the sword of the Spirit, your long hair blowing about, you hurry off past "The Evil Spot", towards the "Cursed Pathway" between Secu and Agapia-on-the-Hill, where you can hear an angelic voice singing all summer:

Here I linger by the rill,
God's ewe lamb.

While some deep bass voice answers:

There am I come from the hill,
God's own ram.

For, miserable sinner that I was, quite unintentionally, I had discovered something of the monastic secrets, while I'd been walking with the boys during the summer, pretending to pick mushrooms in those places where I'd taken a fancy to monastic life, as a fellow steeped in piety always will, you know.

To go back to my story at last: the night before setting out I pondered in my mind until daybreak how I might soften mother's heart and go to a monastery instead; and just as I had decided to tell mother these things, lo and behold, there's the sun ushering in a beautiful day. Old Luca, who was now married a second time and whose young wife had been anxious to wake him in good time and get him ready for the journey, suddenly called outside: "Ready? Come on! I am waiting horses and all." Mother then began to rush me into setting out, leaving me no time to tell her about my plans to become a monk.

To make a long story short, we and Zaharia's relatives collected in old Luca's yard, we kissed our parents' hands, taking our leave with tears in our eyes; and when we had climbed into the cart as sorrowful and tearful as could be, old Luca, our driver, whipped up the horses, saying to his wife who was shutting the gates after us:

"Olimpiada, my dear, mind that hole, do!" It had been made by some pigs which, having broken down the palings in one place, had grown fond of the maize in his garden.

It was the morning of the Day of the Beheading of St. John the Baptist, as we drove out of Humuleşti; girls and young men, dressed in their Sunday best, were busily bustling here and there, with joy upon their faces! Only myself and Zaharia, squatting in old Luca's cart, were being driven into banishment, a forfeit to the devil! I can't think of a more appropriate and fitting term.

"Please drive on faster, nuncle," I said, "so that the village won't stare at us as if we were bears on show." But old Luca was driving in his own way, for his horses were singularly worn out, weak and scraggy like feeble kittens and no fiery steeds as mother would have it, doing her best to get me out of the house.

"A curse upon whoever's done away with those seminaries just when we need them," Gitlan's Zaharia said bitterly when we were out of the village. "Just when a man should be enjoying the days of his youth, he's got to set to book learning; as if there were ten lives to be lived! Continually going from one school to another all to no purpose, any day now we'll find ourselves turning into sickly, weak old men, just right  for the priesthood, as soon we've finished at Socola!"

"What do you say to such goings on, nuncle?"

"What should I say, master Zaharia? What do I know of your regulations? I've got to drive you to the appointed place and from then on you'll manage as best you can. Gee up, horses, so that we may be back home the sooner."

As we heard old Luca lovingly speak of home and as we saw the villages and the lovely places we were leaving drop behind and ever new ones starting up before us, our anger knew no bounds! Every well, stream, valley, glade and other favourite place that we left behind drew a deep sigh from our breasts! And if we had done as we then felt, we should have turned back there and then; only we were in old Luca's trust and we stood in awe of him as well as of our parents.

After a brief halt at the bridge of Timişeşti over the waters of the Moldova, we drove on to Moţca and climbed slowly along by the woods of Păşcani. Then from the top of that wooded mountain we, unhappy souls, looked back once more, in sorrow, upon the Neamţ mountains, those giants, their tops hidden in the clouds where streams sprang up, and from which swift rivers poured down, whispering secrets in their never ending course and maybe carrying much human yearning and pain along with them to drown them in the stately Danube.

"Well, well, Zaharia, old boy," I said as we were driving down-hill towards Păşcani, "we've lost sight of the mountains now and our banishment is a fact for God knows how long!"

"As the Holy Lord will have it," said Zaharia, his voice almost gone. Then he sat brooding all the way to Blăgeşti, across the Siret, where we put up for the night. But what a night! Here, in the porch of a wheelright's house, we nearly went blind; from evening to midnight we lay in the smoke of burning dung, as in quarantine, yet the mosquitoes had the better of us.

"That's life in the plains for you," old Luca said, tossing and turning this way and that, as if on tenterhooks because of the mosquitoes. "As soon as you cross the Siret, the water's bad and wood is scarce; in summer you're smothered with heat and the mosquitoes are a perfect curse. I wouldn't live in the plains for the world! Ours are fine places! The waters are sweet to the taste, crystal-clear and ice-cold, there's wood in plenty, in summer it's cool and shady everywhere, the people are healthier, tougher, stronger and more cheerful, not like these dwellers in the plains, withered and puckered as if they'd been living on toasted mushrooms all their lives."

"You know what, uncle Luca," Zaharia said after a while; "the Pleiades are setting, so is Orion, and the morning star is soon due; let us start on our way!"

"Right you are, master Zaharia; a Saint has spoken through your mouth. Rather than turn and toss about on this porch let us shorten the way. For God Almighty's in heaven and he will keep us from evil."

And thus, taking leave of our host, who was lying in the open, under another porch, away we drove.

And as soon as we were out on the high-road by good fortune we came upon some men with cartloads of shingles driving to Jassy. We travelled with them for fear of the gipsies of Ruginoasa and we made splendid progress till, at daybreak, there we were at Tīrgu Frumos where we forthwith split a few water-melons to quench our thirst and still our hunger. Then when the horses were somewhat rested, on we went towards Podu-Leloaei, and from there still further on to Jassy, more often walking than driving, for old Luca's horses had grown very weak, and the peasants coming and going, who're fond of a joke, would make biting remarks, so that we were uncomfortable because of old Luca's shame.

And particularly about sundown, as we were just entering the town of Jassy, along Păcurari Street, the very devil of a strapping fellow mocked us outright saying:

"Take care, old man, hold those steeds in check, lest they gallop away, for this town of Jassy is a large one and, God help me, you may wreak havoc in it!"

That was the last straw for old Luca; he poured out on him all possible and impossible curses.

"Just listen to that! If he only knew, the lazy devil, where we'd started from last night, he'd hold his tongue; he wouldn't go on at my horses in that fashion! And it's not the first time that I've been to Jassy, and I've no need to take advice from the likes of him as to the kind of pace I've got to go, damn and blast him! If he'd just stopped a while, I'd have taught him to mock at travellers another time!"

Seeing that people were making fun of us and that old Luca was put out and beside himself we crept under a rug as we were sitting in the cart, myself rather timidly saying: "Nuncle, if anyone asks you, from now on, why the horses are pulling so hard, just tell them that you're bringing some blocks of salt from the mines and see if they'll believe you!"

"So that's it? I didn't know that you were that sort," old Luca said, walking by the horses bitterly enraged. "Don't provoke me or I'll slash you through that rug to get the devil out of you!"

Hearing what was in store for us, we nudged each other in the ribs and squeaking with suppressed laughter, we just sat mum. At long last, after many a flick and a sting that old Luca collected on all sides, for people can be very nasty when you're driving at a slow steady pace, in and out of pot-holes, through all the bumps and ruts of the Jassy streets, we eventually came, late at night, to the yard of Socola; and we drove under a great big poplar tree where we found plenty of students from all the seminaries of Moldavia; some were young, but most of them wore great big unkempt beards like yard brooms; they were sitting upon the grass with their parents, clerics and lay people together, telling each other of their troubles!

1post-mile: distance of about six miles between two mailcoach stations where horses were changed.