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

Lucian Blaga


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.”


the still light from water and earth
light arching from mists
an ever purer voice

the clink of magic stones rolled by a god
onto the riverbank
in another world

the chimera of glowing fire
above the silent, living darkness
of the orchard

close your eyes tighter so as to see
light’s first growth
the still light
from water and earth.


Lavinia didn’t sleep all night she can see with her skin
she can feel the morning’s unfurling: her body, an instrument from other days
its meanings nearly forgotten.
From the white, straight road, snatches of voices inside blue rings.
Peasant women approach laughing. Hay rakes and forks balanced on shoulders
their tread heavy in the dust, the dust arching in their bodies. Their gait—of the eternal wave.
They greet Lavinia as they pass her house, the last house at the village’s edge,
and then they turn toward the hayfields
on that stretch of old Roman road gleaming in the grass.

Lavinia didn’t sleep last night. She moves almost weightlessly
like a spider caught on the surface of water, gliding
on the quivering mirror. This is how the air holds her,
a pale shadow suspended by flimsy legs.

Lavinia saved this house. No one in the village had a house like this.
Like a fortress, people say. How could anyone live in a fortress?
The boyar had fled right after the war. It was broad daylight when a crowd broke in
and searched into every cranny, stole whatever had not been stolen earlier by the servants.
Oh, what they took with them! Chairs divans, pots and pans, pictures. Only the walls were left,
stripped and cracked walls, alien walls to enclose new times and lives.
For a few winters hay and cattle were kept in the salon.


Lavinia spent her childhood, her years as a young wife, at the seaside. In a port city.
It was only after her husband died that she came to his village in the mountains
in a truck piled high with baggage and their two little daughters. She couldn’t really remember their many relatives in the countryside. Her brother-in-law and sister-in-law were surprised to see her,
received her with words of compassion mixed with worry. A sort of vague promise.
Barely disguised dismay.
“I can work,” she assured them.

The little girls, happy at the change, sat on the bundles and suitcases.
They played and laughed together until they fell asleep among their familiar things.
The both of them: Marieta and Lena.
That very day, on her own, Lavinia found the deserted mansion.

As nomads who face danger will leave deep in the indifferent earth
the sacred hoard of jewels to await their return as mighty conquerors
and who quickly gallop far away on their horses, obscured by clouds of dust,
but whom the road leads astray so that another land entangles them in its rough, dark law
—so likewise this woman had tried to defend herself.

Brazen sparrows have moved into the swallows’ nest. In vain Marieta shouts at them from down below, “Fly away! Fly away!” They won’t go. “Let them be. Let them live there, too,” Mama says. “But why? They’re hateful!” Because… this is what Mama meant to tell her… that the three of them also stay in a deserted nest. The house alone loves them.
They take care of it. They defend the house against moths, against spiders.
Only the bats they leave in peace, even though
you get startled by them as they fly right by you in the night, noiseless—like death.
Because they eat bad insects. During the day they stay hidden in corners
hanging from their small claws, like dried wild fruit.

Lavinia looks out the window, stretches her back, her bones creak.
The girls jump rope with other children. They’ve grown tall, their knees are always scraped.
Time prowls furtively around them: an unheard sound, all too near…
With a sudden fear, Lavinia throws open the window.

The voice through the clenched teeth of the beast, the untamed fright.
“Children! Come here! I’ll spread some lard on bread for you.”


At the appointed time, the girls go out into the world.
They both leave, before suitable men would have taken them away from home as brides.
Nothing could have changed their ideal plans, the usual way of the world:
gains, advantages, perspectives that Lavinia had considered with her daughters.

Lavinia has thought a thousand times about that moment of separation
pressed smooth by clear reasons.
But the bridges had fallen down, fallen down. In her tortured soul, the earth tore loose from the waters.

Then the girls were gone. The woman walked back home. Oh, the crowd on the bus
the dust the sweat
(maybe the girls shouldn’t have gone, shouldn’t have gone), so many people crammed together on the steps, holding on, tanned by life’s passage from generation to generation

People don’t even look at them. Don’t seem to notice them.
Don’t protect their youth.

In her loneliness, Lavinia slaved away without rest—an abandoned clockwork. The rusty wheels followed as they had to, turning in accordance with rules forgotten long ago.