The first time he heard of Bucharest was in the shop of his friend Mustafa and merely listening to the music of the name he had felt it was like a shaving brush running across his teeth. Inexplicably, the whole of that day he was unable to get it out of his head. A word is a tiny maggot, created to multiply without surcease. It slips into the labyrinth of your ear with a map in its pocket and is not interested in any way station, in any alliance, and in the present case it did not stop until it reached the thalamus, that shady area where it is said there is a ghost-haunted lake. But Ioannis did not know of this perverse side to words. He had spent all of his sixteen years at the edge of the Catol quarter, among the fish baskets, firstly next to his mother’s stall, and then hauling loads of blue haddock, grey mullet, sullen goby, and turbot, laid one by one in the wicker baskets, stamped forever on his memory, along with his father’s face, outlined against the sky, like a large, withered sunflower blackened by the rain.
His father was called Bradu Milikopu, an honourable name, known throughout the neighbourhood, not so much for his heroic deeds, as much as for his pocked face and fiery eyes, behind which burned a single dream, Lambros Katsonis by name.
One April morning, after his final basket had been laid beneath the stall, Ioannis ran off, as was his wont. Mustafa’s shop was on the other side of town, a small business, crammed into a single room with a beamed ceiling. He daily entered that room lined with textiles and shawls, just to touch the huge bolts of cloth, to weigh with his eyes the rolls of fine wool and to touch the Mosul silk, for few things can compare with the softness of fabric sliding like a droplet of warm tea between index finger and thumb. Sometimes he visited Mustafa’s just to feel beneath his palm a packet of brocade or to suck into his eyes the pastel colours of the muslin. And when he had the money, he bought remnants, leftover pieces of cloth, even small scraps that nobody else wanted. He made trimmings for turbans, gloves, bags decorated with beads, belts consisting of dozens of patches, handkerchiefs, and dolls’ faces, little things for his sisters or aunts.
As soon as he entered, his eyes alighted on a piece of Bengali cloth, almost hidden among the waves of fabrics. It was a soft fabric, wherein the silk seemed to have risen to the surface, while the thickness, a mixture of cotton and wool, remained at the base. It had the colour of greenish silver.
Mustafa’s moustache twitched to one side: the fabric was not cheap and nor could you make anything much from it, certainly not a pair of shalwars. It would have done for the yoke of a dress or for some watery skirts, maybe for some cuffs. But for trousers, no!
“Out of the question, young Milikopu,” Mustafa opined, in the very same moment as the fez of Okimon the teacher appeared in the shop doorway.
From his eyes, which were radiant in their orbits, it was obvious that he had been to the post office in the port.
“It seems that the most merciful Selim has looked down upon our poor Thessaloniki,” said the teacher, with some emphasis, and despite the fact that for Mustafa “poor Thessaloniki” was Eyalet-i Selanik and for any Vlach it was Saruna, neither of the two had any difficulty understanding where he meant.
In town, everybody spoke Greek from dawn to dusk. But in the white houses, beneath the ruffled crowns of the pines, and in the gaggles of market traders, the Turks quarrelled among themselves in Turkish, the Jews whispered in their own language, which nobody else understood, and as you entered the Catol quarter, you could hear words drenched in honey, whose kernel only the Vlachs knew.
For the space of a few minutes, the teacher heaped praise on Sultan Selim, who had ascended to the throne precisely a year previously.
“A Greek friend of mine,” Mustafa felt obliged to add, “told me that they have increased the wages of the galley men twofold. My friend’s brother was in the service of Gazi Hassan.”
Since the teacher was gazing at him intently, Mustafa went on: “Some even received ranks!”
Through the window of the shop were visible the grey roofs, and in the distance glinted the waters of the sea, which all of a sudden made Ioannis feel closely bound to that place, to that shop lined with bolts of silk and to the two men, who were the men dearest to him in all Saruna. And then, in that moment of warmth, which was like a goodly lobster laid on the table, into the life of Ioannis, into his young brain and his yearning heart, slipped the blade of the word Bucharest.
“My friend’s brother,” boasted Mustafa, “has become the master of a city where everybody dances!”
The teacher doubted that such a place existed, but the Turk chattered on, while Ioannis continued to stroke the piece of cloth.
The dancers of which Mustafa told spoke neither Turkish nor Greek.
“Can you believe it?” he said, rolling his eyes. “Those people speak Vlach!”
“Aha!” said the teacher. Now he understood: “Perhaps you mean Bucharest!”
The name of the city brought with it a moment’s silence.
“One of my grandfathers went to Bucharest,” Okimon went on.
Ioannis was warmed by the thought that in the immensity of the Empire there were other people who spoke his language. He did not even notice that along with this banal observation, the word Bucharest wafted inside him, a word that otherwise did not sound very exotic.
That was the beginning, which dilated with the passing of time: Mustafa’s mouth, moving beneath his moustache, and the teacher clarifying with serene eyes. My friend’s brother, Mustafa had said. One of my grandfathers, Okimon had added. Those bold adventurers had opened the gate for him. The friend’s brother was a sailor with a beard gluey with tobacco. The teacher’s grandfather sold olives and smoked mullet.
Still stroking the cloth, Ioannis remained motionless. The window of the shop reflected the profile of his face, with its prominent nose, like the back of a carp.
Okimon was of the opinion that the Vlachs of Saruna themselves had come thence. Without any reason, the face of his father came to Ioannis’ mind, a face pocked like sand spattered with raindrops.
“In any event, those Vlachs are not very clever,” the Turk pointed out. “My Greek’s brother became a sailor because he never managed to sell one scrap of cloth in his whole life! He has less brain that a Persian hen! But even so, now he is the governor of the dancing Vlachs!”
The teacher mentioned a few other numbskulls from Saruna who had got rich in the same way, closing with a precept on that theme, which, for reasons known only to himself, he uttered in Vlach.
The teacher’s eyes sprayed him with a jet of light, and Mustafa’s moustache twitched benevolently. Unexpectedly gripped by euphoria, Ioannis decided to buy the Bengali cloth with the money for the butcher, completely forgetting about lunch, which was only a few hours away.
Translated by Alistair Ian Blyth