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.”
Lavinia enters the baker’s courtyard, where they sell flat loaves of warm bread.
Beyond the low doors, the big oven; the heat slams against you, the clamor.
“So when shall I come to try on my things?”
“Tomorrow, at noon. We need bright light.”
I wonder, tomorrow, will this woman be as shy as before? All her life she’s worn the same traditional clothing—that hand-woven cotton blouse patterned just-so with black embroidery, the dark homemade wool skirt, an apron gay with bright flowers—
now her old woman’s nakedness fills her with dread, as though it were a cardinal sin.
“What do you think, won’t people laugh at me in a dress?”
The baker recounts her story: “That’s how it was. It was bad times. My husband was one of those who fled from home. You might have heard about them. Partisans.
Me, they locked me in the basement of the Ilioiu woman’s house, and they tried to make me tell them where he was.
‘I don’t know.’
‘Not a single one of you knows!!’ We were five women locked there.
We kept wailing loudly, but in the end we grew strong again together.
About our children, they didn’t let on about anything, not a word—on purpose—who was taking care of them.”
Mechanically, straightforwardly, the baker tells about her life as if some stranger’s.
“But they couldn’t have had their way, made us tell. How could we have known where our men had run – in these mountains and valleys, or anywhere else…?”
The baker had clenched her hands into a ball in her colorful wool apron, which she was wearing inside-out, the flowers’ silk yarns on the wrong side of the weave curled into little tangles.
Silence falls in the room with its scent of new fabric. Lavinia is cutting and sewing together the gores.
She uses her crippled hand like a pedal.
Laurenţia’s story can be heard now in her mind—about the time when the baker had returned to the village…
The little house presses itself low to the earth, flowers grow taller
spiders weave their webs under the eaves, in the windows;
enamel-green moss covers broken shingles, the wood falls as powder at its joints. Inside, ancient scents, musty with age.
Only Sidonia knows with what charms her little bird’s soul has enchanted her lovers for a lifetime—enticing them into her little house pressed low to the earth.
The baby screams and wriggles, red in its face.
Marcela sits down. She pulls her breast out of her blouse in one swift motion, and covers the baby’s cry with her heavy milk, gathered during so many hours working the garden.
“For all its crying, girl, you should have waited a little… You’re letting it suck while you’re sweaty from hoeing, you can upset a baby’s stomach, poor little thing!”
We returned home after the First World War from where we took refuge, my father had died at the front
and the house was empty, the walls bare. They’d stolen everything,
even the icons from their nails, for we’d had to leave with the pot on the hot stove, cooking.
Then mother sat at her loom. She started to make clothing, all for the house, blankets, everything.
A crowd of people at church on St. Mary’s day.
On the tables, on the floor, in front of the altar, trays and trays, offerings of colivă, the sweet boiled wheat for the dead, and rice pudding for the living.
Burnt-out candles stuck into the sweets.
The village full of namesakes—Marias hardly grown, in stiff new dresses of calico,
wives in full flower, very new mothers who are going out in public for the first time, a bit unsteady on their feet,mwith their six-week-old babies, dressed in frills.
Lavinia in the front, alone, listens to the service.
Among the women her age, she is the only one dressed in city ways, no embroidered blouse, skirt, overskirt. How old is she? In her blue-gray jacket, she seems a different sort of being.
On the rough rug, a marriageable young girl crosses herself, bows low.
A man from Piatră goes and crosses himself repeatedly, praying before the saints and hermits painted along the windows with their beards pointed down as low as their knees.
Stumbling against one another, the Marias hold their trays high, lined up in two rows
from the altar to the door. Everybody passes by and with the small spoon takes a big mouthful, they each offer a little glass of wine, too, bought from the same barrels at the state store, of course a little soured.
“Oh, you’ve made the coliva so tasty, Aunt Mariuţa. Really, rum and vanilla both!”
“Give me a bit more for the little one, if you please, I left him at home…”
“Pour another glassful, you stingy thing, it’s so small,” Culină laughs, toothless.
“Let us give thanks. May it be received.”