Lavinia and Her Daughters
by Ioana Ieronim
Translated from Romanian by Adam J. Sorkin and Ioana Ieronim. With the translator's preface.
Červená Barva Press, 2020.
Cover photo: Kathleen Laraia McLaughlin
Photo taken in Romania from the album "The Color of Hay."
This is the story of a widow who travels with her two young daughters from her port city on the Black Sea to the village of her husband’s kin: a small rural community in the Romanian Carpathians. There, she succeeds to raise her daughters through strength of character and hard work as the village seamstress. Thus the protagonist serves as a shrewdly perceptive witness who knows everybody and muted voice through which we hear the villagers of this mountain locale with its pastoral heritage. The events take place at a margin of space on the still remembered border between the former Austrian and the Ottoman empires and a thin, transitional margin of time: the Soviet takeover following World War II. The new order would ultimately destroy the timeless lifestyle that had survived in the Carpathians well into the twentieth century and beyond.
“An amazing object of virtuosity.” -- Al.Călinescu
“A beautiful thrilling book.” – Tania Radu
“This is a ‘total,’ polyphonic poem, containing magic realism associated with epic-type intertext, feature reportage with memoir, hyperrealism and lyrical incantation, portraits and dialogue-based sequences.” – Paul Cernat
“It contains a perspective of metaphysical nature, wherein people and happenings are considered in relation to the eternal flow of life in the universe.” – Nicolae Manolescu
A Carpathian Elegy
Translated from the Romanian by Adam J.Sorkin and the author
It’s sweet to sleep beside water as it flows
the water that sees everything
but remembers nothing
The woman approaches the seamstress’s night table and the full-length mirror where you can see yourself so clearly—
how many people have so fine a mirror, from the old days?
In the other room, Lavinia is looking for the blouse that has to be fitted. Here, the woman is alone, casting a critical eye at her image:
I’m so ugly in this plain everyday dress. It’s too old!
A dark wave washes across her round eyes
—lodged in her memory another face stares back, as far from truth as a body’s shadow.
“What bad, cheap fabric, it’s baggy and stretched…”
She examines herself in profile, over one shoulder, her eyes sharp as those of a bird of prey, gives a tug at her bra straps to lift her breasts
slicks her dyed, raven-black hair with a moist finger—yes, she’s kept traces of beauty—
“Oh, this dress! It ruins me.”
“How are you, neighbor?” Lavinia asks from the doorway
“Gooood, good. We’ve had a few difficulties with the daughter, what can I say? The wedding. Pretensions.
As if you don’t know how it is…”
Lavinia remains quiet, draping freshly-cut panels of black and red fabric on the woman’s body.
Lavinia doesn’t know. No. Doesn’t know anything.
Pinned together at last, the sleeve hides the woman’s fleshy, blue-veined arm.
“May God give you a cart heaped with good luck, Neighbor Oara.”
Lavinia is hemming a silk dress. The needle keeps pricking her calloused fingers.
Uncle Petrache halts the oxen, opens the gates to the mansion,
positions the cart right under the loft door, to fork in every last straw of the hay. He unyokes the pair of oxen, ties them…
Lavinia can hear his voice over the clatter of her sewing machine and comes out, laughing.
“Haven’t you brought any help? Your daughter at least…”
“Goodness, ma’am, everyone according to their household. Long as I can, I’m goin’ to do it my own way, with my woman. We yet have the strength ourselves to help our children.”
The old man unfastens the pole across the load, climbs up into the cart on top of the high stack. He pierces the flesh of the dry grass with the pitchfork and starts throwing the hay into the loft, pivoting himself at his waist tightly bound with a woman’s long sash.
“In ’bout an hour I’ll be done, after I arrange it… so as not to heat up… not to spoil…”
He looks down to Lavinia—frail, city-like in her black patent-leather slippers.
“’Cause hay, you don’t put it right, it heats up like corn,” he adds, “it can even catch fire, phew, God preserve us”—and before his eyes, his Maria’s feet appear to him, so broad they don’t fit even her big hand-made country shoes—and so in winter you see her rushing to the well to fetch water, or to the cattle: slapping against the snow, her feet beet-red.
“Uncle Petrache, when you go, take me along in your cart as far as Aunt Sidonia.”
Lavinia calls the hens, scatters some handfuls of barley on the bare ground. The fat hens come running hungrily.
Lavinia crosses the empty village: work is being done where you can’t see it
it’s so silent you can hear the earth’s heart—it expands it shrinks
people on the hills scythe the grass into windrows, women fill baskets with summer plums
geese flap above the water honking.
The houses descend, descend down toward the river, descend down toward the earth lowering the back of their necks
toward the fresh thicket, in the juicy leaves. Poor dirty creatures live here at the margins of life of death. Roots tangled in flowing water.
People avoid this place, in their pride and disgust.
They live in the blind middle, at the illusory core, sheltered and warm.
The woman walks barefoot very quickly to the pigsty, hunched-over, she can hardly carry the cauldron she has just taken from the grate over the fire in the courtyard.
Little Croaking-Andrian, dripping snot, mucus in the corner of his eyes, tangles himself in her skirts. The woman shrieks at him shrilly, pushes him aside with her knee, reaches the trough, and pours out the cauldron. The pig squeals and lumbers up to it, trembling.
The woman pats it softly on the neck and coos at it. Then, more roughly to her son:
“Andrian, take care with Uncle Pandele’s cow, that it doesn’t knock over its fodder, God forbid!…
Ghiţă, my doll-baby! You beautiful boy!” The pig has stepped with its forepaws into the trough and is busy eating, lost in the heart of paradise.
“Hmmm,” Lavinia murmurs, stopping her words between her old, sunken lips. “Hmmm, yes.”
In the chicken yard, the red hens, masters of the weeds, flee in haste, they hide themselves among laths tossed in a heap, cackling with alarm: strangers have come in among them.
The strangers leave a new hen inside the gate, then lock it and go.
A white hen with ruffled feathers. They let it out of a basket.
The others watch the new hen askance, with one eye, then the other. Slowly they come out of hiding, sidle up to the white bird—
more and more hatred, anger, draws them to her. They peck at her timidly,
then strike harder, they dart at her, crowd above her, inflamed—
they chase her toward the henhouses.
In his heavy boots, the master hurries among them, struggles to pull them apart. Blind, frenzied, they had flung themselves in a pile on the exhausted white bird, covered with blood.
Lavinia tears herself away from the shadow of the house.
She shrieks like a bird.
Like a bird she shrieks again and again,
until she tears herself away from her own shriek.
The dust of the earth glows from within, light from waters and earth
night inseparable from day
the skin of darkness lines the solar egg.
February cruel spring, crazy March, warm snows flood the land
buds open wild beaks.
Oh, the high flame of November burning in celestial alcohol.
With soft paws
bears make tracks in raspberry patches,
tread down the silky grass after mowing.
There he comes
down the mountain,
a god of the waters—
there he comes and nobody,
neither the dead
nor the living dust
can remain indifferent
Lavinia weaves her arms among streaming roots.
Ants scurry up her folds, a humming touches her.
She sets out among hazelnut blossoms:
her father was a tree, a lonely tree
her mother a late, late flower, a flower.