The Triumph of the Water Witch
“The Triumph of the Water Witch” is a major work. -- Robert Murrey Davis
Born at a time when “the century was breaking in half”, Ieronim narrates, mostly from a child’s perspective, the unsettling tale of Communism’s rise in her native Romania. She effectively conveys youthful fear and confusion in the midst of political upheaval through poignant vignettes filled with cinematic detail: all the sights, sounds and smells of the child’s limited world here subtly and powerfully evoke the bigger picture of vast societal change. -- KIRKUS REVIEWS
All the texts are a search for the possibility to keep one’s interior freedom and truthfulness while the world around is falling apart. -- Ute Rill
Ioana Ieronim’s “Triumph of the Water Witch” is an extraordinary book. A verse novel which is also the autobiography of a community “at a time when the century was breaking in half. It is a narrative device which allows the epiphanic, the sensual, the incomprehensible and the fabular to co-exist. -- Fiona Sampson
The author felt compelled to write the book out of a deep, inward moral need to bear witness to the degradation of human individuality and integrity in her terrified, disintegrating country. The poems trace a personal narrative, a girl's rite of passage, thrown into sharp relief by this national tragedy. -- Adam J. Sorkin
The Judges wanted to make special mention of “The Triumph of the Water Witch” by Ioana Ieronim, whose haunting prose poems offer a kind of resistance to the grotesquely impoverished "here and now" of her existence in Romania. -- Nomination for the Sir Weidenfeld Prize for Translation from a European Language, Oxford University, UK, 2001)
I know how to speak
as if I’m not speaking
I know how to speak without moving my lips
my face motionless
I know how to speak so you
can’t detect who and when
—as if the wind had uttered
We were seated on life’s sound that never fades and dies (a kind of light which eternally shapes our being, our feelings, bending them little by little). All of us. A bridge across the border had appeared, a bridge of brass—
a bridge across the earth, of silver.
The breath of Capricorn misted the windows, its tail spreading itself throughout the subterranean waters.
My mother had me swaddled tightly, tiny fists
close to my face, as immaculate as on the very first day.
through eyelashes glued shut, through the thinnest, most delicate of eardrums,
the Fates made their entrance.
They bore their gifts wrapped in cloud, with three faces.
It turned to night.
Their steps on the cobblestone floor sparked fire, sparked stars.
They had brilliant gowns, the Fates
(here and there, the pearl flowers were beginning to unravel—
but in the pale snow-light, this could not be seen very clearly).
On the far side, Libra, the Scales, in oscillation, trembling
eyes half closed.
I was born at a time when the century was breaking in half. More transparent than the air itself, the arrow crossing above my slender arms: the god had not yet mapped out my journey—when tongues of fire flared agony over a wounded earth.
History submerged whole landscapes.
Children would blow delicate soap bubbles down from the roofs. Children scampered through the streets, propelling hoops with wire hooks.
A drumroll at the end of the street announced the Triumph of the Water Witch: the demon’s hair permed into wire, her snout smeared with chemical rouge, a pistol in her boot, a train station clock on her wrist.
A never-resting star drew the earth out of its orbit. In the arc of the Carpathians, broken, the sign waited on its knees.
The drum summoned the village to the crossroads—to inform people of new edicts, new taxes. Other laws, further numbers. In the end they dispersed back to their homes with eyes cast down to the ground. On faces beaten by wind, by sun, their thoughts could not be seen (their necks furrowed by work; younger, whiter flesh under the collar).
A neighbor, Hajdu the carpenter, looked as if he had eyes of wood. His lips warped in a long forgotten smile. He returned from those meetings with slow, solemn tread; each time his shoulders seemed bent a little lower.
Another neighbor, Herr Geetz, heard that they meant to make him “a deputy,” so he hid in his own house. They elected him anyway, because so many in the council there heaped praises on him. Even Colonel Broșteanu described him in glowing terms, although he didn’t have any idea whom he was talking about.
Life’s fragrances retreated into the earth. Words into poverty’s parched riverbed. People worked and worked, waiting (“to hope is almost to live”). Work had never betrayed them, not until now.
In the evangelical church they displayed the holy infant every year at the deepest, darkest moment of winter. In a little red house lit from within, they showed everything in shadow play exactly the way it had been: Mary, Joseph and the Magi on their knees gaze into the manger, the cattle warm the child with their breath, as if a calf of their own.
The little house had its place under the fir tree that towered way up to the decorated vault. On both sides of the church in long wooden balconies, boys and girls, dressed for the holiday, their cheeks rosy, kept watch over the candles so the tree wouldn’t catch on fire. Each was armed with a long thin pole: when a wick flared high among the branches and ornaments, one of the boys, his face blushing deeper red with bashful self-importance, would snuff the flame.
The eyes of the children became radiant with the flickerings on the fir tree. But the grownup men, the grownup women . . . how did they look at things?
Their voices ascended to the arches, resonating in unison, the voices swirled among the columns like bare trees, trees like signs. The organ swelled from depths far below, the organ spiraled down from on high.
In rows on the wooden benches, all the world sang, people curling further within, worming into themselves. Earthly beings and heavenly beings. Hope and a tear between worlds.
At the end, gifts: apples cookies shining gilt walnuts little glittering goodies. Voices caroling, the organ soaring above everybody. Then people scattered in every direction.
You would leave but the music kept you company (oh gladness, goodness) beyond the walls of the church to the narrow streets, far into the distance. The voice of the organ permeating the gossamer of your bodily fabric, air and flame.
I was with my grandmother. (“They make it so nice, too . . . Do you see how they prepared a gift for you, as if you were among their own children?” She was whispering to me as we walked home in darkness. “Did you tell them thank you?”) The snow scrunched under our feet.
My jaw was stiff, clenched with emotion. Everywhere I turned my eyes—bright windows. “Think he’s been . . . he’s been to ours . . . to our house?”
Usually on Christmas Eve while the two of us were at the German church, Father Christmas would come with the tree and gifts, but he had to hurry away to visit other children. Faithfully, he forgave my mistakes—year after year he was kind. Every year he also left behind a number of duties for me.
Our tree was nice, the nicest. And Father Christmas never forgot the white angel and the little stars and the funny clown as fat as a barrel. And the Hess chocolates wrapped in crinkly colored foil. You couldn’t eat those anymore: Father Christmas had been keeping them since the time of the war and each year there were fewer.
I could never hear when she opened her little gate in the ivy-covered wall. How she froze me with her eyes, with her dry voice like crushed stone. Near Ida’s shadow, black like a black bat, I gave a leap—my heart throbbed darkly and blinded me. Through the air suddenly filled with flames I would manage to get home inside my own gate.
Ida’s garden—the forbidden place.
You were only allowed to pass through one end of it on a long narrow board, perpetually slick (you would have thought a northern territory breathed between the walls of her garden, it was so cool and damp).
But on the path, the deepest silence descended upon you (each place has its singular voice of silence)—and then I’d set off for the sand alley between the straight, flowering hedgerows.
I didn’t touch leaf or tree. Halfway, I usually turned around: sometimes at the faint crack of the red currant twigs, or the whish of a wingbeat of wind.
Everything there belonged to Ida—Ida, soul of a witch.
If there were the slightest sign, a flutter, a stir, I’d run madly back. Nevertheless it happened sometimes that she caught me (you never knew when she would come gliding noiselessly through her little gate in the ivy) . . . just when I had arrived at the heart of her garden, on the grass (oh, the drowsy-scented cradle) beneath the walnut tree.
Here I could see the snowdrops sprouting, how they warmed the snow in circles. How overnight they vanquished the armor of the ice crust: what rustlings and secret happenings occurred under the translucent white mane! I would kneel in the warm snow, I would bring my face near.
“You should never, oh no, never stay awake the whole night till dawn,” children whispered. “That’s what Ida did . . . that’s why now she’s so lonely and so loony.”
In their unknown bed, lost in Ida’s garden, grew the most beautiful lilies of the valley in the entire world.
Ida was a widow, the widow of . . . of whom?
The wife of darkness.
She had a handsome young son as handsome as the sun itself—Horst.
Once a year he’d come to see her, and
then she bustled about as sprightly as a young girl, she flew through doorways, how the pots rang while she prepared his food.
She laughed and laughed with her voice of stone and shade, totally transformed.
But soon he went off to the mountains, soon he set out again into the wide world, and
then night after night she would cry, twisted tight like a gnarled root—until she settled back into her old channel.
Misch had to touch things with his enormous hand: his face fair, his eyes always perplexed.
Any question, after some delay, he’d respond to very slowly. Because in his mind he had to touch things bit by bit, with his fair hands.
There was something delicate in his smile like a skittish unicorn, something awkward and loving. An Irreality.
Much later, when he was as big as a grown man, they gave him glasses . . . And then he became another person.
That summer he built himself a little cabin where he lived for some time sheltered from the elements and secure,
and around the border just under the ceiling he painted in sweet calligraphy the prayer of his nest to God—who now could see his writing much more clearly with glasses:
ÄCH BÄN E SAKS DES STUW ÄS MENJ—AS HÄRRGOTT MEG AS GNEDISCH SENJ
In this small room a Saxon You’ll find—Lord, grant me mercy and be kind.
When your feet already grown too large get frozen in the same pair of boots
when you shiver in the same worn-out coat from autumn through next spring
when you can hardly find anything in the kitchen cupboard to spread on your black bread—that means your parents have lost so much that they have started losing the memories as well
: Well, who can know anything about the feast days now? The old people knew a different age and time.
And there are no occasions to use some of the words any longer, either—of course they get forgotten. “So we’re also supposed to take care of the words now!! Why do you tease people with so many questions, my child?! Go and learn what you need to, but do it on your own.”
From the costumes of the old days, only a few parts have been kept. But for Confirmation you’ll have to have the complete outfit. It’s lucky that the grocery’s had some flowered ribbon delivered: including edelweiss, do you hear, with blue and black. You can sew it on the fabric. And, if you look at it from far enough away, it will appear embroidered by hand.
Yes. When you’ve lost too much, you’ll be an orphan even from your traditions.
Aunt Edith is busy knitting. I’m crocheting blue eyes out of silk: a chain . . . as long as . . . as long as the earth. Uncle Fritz reads us a story for grownups.
Uncle Fritz and Aunt Edith understand all sorts of things. They are smiling. They often sit in silence for a long time between the lines.
I myself understand, though maybe half.
Outside—white winter. Outside—the field, lonely, bruised by darkness. Deep in the earth, drowsy, numb lives, awaiting another season.
Rembrandt van Rijn smiles at us, toothless and old, from the upper bookshelf.
A light streams upon us.
When I’d come back from school a trip or playing and some improper word popped up in my stories, Uncle Fritz was quick to describe for me from what kind of person that word had got stuck on my tongue—from what kind of distorted sentence what kind of colorful embroidered decoration on what kind of kitchen wall: an interloper, a parasite, now contemplated between us for a long time, transformed into the hero of a commedia—
and I’d laugh and be ashamed that I hadn’t been able to recognize and vanquish the treacherous word.
But in the very next moment Uncle Fritz changed the scene: at a sign he assembled ranks of smartly dressed words, in tie and tails, with thin refined smiles . . . He was able to play like that in several languages, no less than in Romanian; he paraded hosts of words across our frontiers without paying duties; while looming from horizon to horizon, the Iron Curtain absorbed every echo. (Waves with the infrequency of a century washed below, through phreatic waters.)
The being of his words sparkled over time and space as in some wake resonating from Finnegan into the deepest extremity of the Carpathians—mirrors which contained everything life-size, but much more luminous.
And there was a strange festivity, the table forever laid in the closing words of a fairy tale and stretching endlessly to the margin of time.
Every evening my grandmother would let down her blond hair while I watched it fall to her waist: then she braided it again. She switched off the light. She kneeled—the whisper of her prayer reached as far as the edges of night, fluttering His celestial garments. Her head would shine in the dark. Crouching on my bed, I too recited my prayers, quickly, the Lord’s Prayer and then, “Ich bin klein mein Herz ist rein . . . ” I prayed for everyone in the house and also for Aunt Edith and Uncle Fritz. At the end, I tried to persuade Him to give me hair as fairy-tale-like as Grandmother’s (“Such foolishness,” Mama said when I confessed, “it’s what’s under the hair that counts”) . . . the kind of hair on which a wandering prince might climb my tower as on a ladder.
I always slept in the same room with my grandmother, and she would become so frightened when I sleepwalked past her in the black dead of night. Aunt Edith explained to me that the moon rays were summoning me when they touched my eyelids. She told me I was “looking for the moon,” as they say in German. Only that I was looking for which side of the earth the moon might be on.
Once when I was in the hospital in the city, an old, old woman slept in the bed next to mine—they said that she was in the hospital because at home she didn’t have what she needed. They were kind to her. They were getting ready to do surgery on her feet in order to keep her there longer.
She had been living by herself. She didn’t love children. In the daytime she gossiped with me about every manner of trifle, “like a lady.” She had come from some place where there had been beauty, riches, rivers of champagne, grand balls. About this former world she would say hardly a word. Perhaps, like Ida, she’d made some sort of mistake?
At night in the hospital ward, the moon would shine on her face, on her white feet with bunions like tubers.
In my transparent sleep, it seemed to me I could distinguish her very being in a haze, her flesh like an ethereal curtain scarcely clinging to her bones—how it danced with stiff curving claws on her legs.
Up to the peak of the mountain of sleep, on top of the moon, she would dance night after night.