Underneath the metal fire escape ladder, the old beggar had fashioned himself a shelter, using a sheet of tarpaulin and an umbrella with broken spokes. Two of the umbrella spokes rested on the ledge of a ground floor window, two on the ladder that sloped along the wall of the building, and one on the branches of a lilac bush in Amzei churchyard. The lilac was bare in the closing days of November.
Perhaps to reward the beggar’s efforts, the umbrella held.
The cold November rain and the lights of a motorcar late in the night left strings of pearls on the lip of each rung. The old beggar clenched his shoulders beneath his greatcoat, pulling them backward—the way eagles do when they swoop, folding their wings back—at the same time thrusting his neck forward.
The movement was brief and for an instant it really did make him look like an eagle in the rain.
He gazed in contentment at his glistening raindrops on the edges of the rungs.
He was master of that little corner of the world, which he had fashioned for himself, and the pleasant feeling of ownership almost made him forget he was hungry. He had eaten, but it had been a long time ago, early that morning of the Feast of the Presentation of Mary, when the women who opened Bucharest’s markets first entered church, as was fitting on such a high holy day. Some of the women had given him alms when they came out of church, having lightened their souls, since the priest had been understanding and given them a dispensation to see to their market affairs, even if that day was the Presentation of the Mother of God. The women had approached him, each with a ring loaf, and one after another they had uttered the names of their dearly departed :
“For the soul of Ionica.”
“May God have mercy on his soul,” the beggar replied to each, stowing the ring loaves in pouches behind the ladder, arranging them by rules known only to him.
“Let the alms be accepted,” came the woman’s faint voice, muffled by the rain that had begun to fall.
A black motorcar, with headlights that boggled like the eyes of a huge grasshopper, passed close to the edge of the pavement, hurling a wave of water towards him and splashing his feet. The water soaked through his galoshes. The old beggar leaned his back against the wall of the building, slowly took off the first galosh, turned it upside down, shook it two or three times, and then put it back on.
The foot that emerged from the galosh wore no sock, revealing itself to the world stark naked.
The beggar poured the water out of the second galosh, after which he said to the metal rungs above his head, to the rain, and to the beautiful church nearby :
“Let them go more slowly ! Is this any weather to be in a hurry ? This rain . . . And besides, it’s night.”
And his shoulders hunched back again, and his neck craned forward. His body repeated that brief movement whenever his words did not manage wholly to reveal his thoughts ; it was a nervous tic, which he had probably developed over many years in which people had not had enough patience for him or what he had to say.
From beneath the umbrella with broken spokes that was to provide his shelter that night, he saw a pair of lacquered man’s shoes, which even the rain seemed to have the courtesy not to splash. The old beggar looked up at the man standing in front of his sheet of tarpaulin. On the collar of the black raincoat glinted a diamond studded pin, and a white silk scarf lay elegantly draped around the gentleman’s neck.
“Mr Malaxa,” said the old man. “I kiss your right hand, Mr Malaxa.”
Nicolae Malaxa thrust both hands in his pockets, searching for coins. But the white gloved hands produced only two pennies.
“I left the house without any change,” he said, looking in embarrassment at the two coins in his palm.
“Don’t worry about it, Mr Malaxa,” said the beggar, stretching a withered hand from beneath the tarpaulin and touching the hem of Malaxa’s trousers consolingly. “You’ve given me money before and you’ll give me money again. Don’t get upset about it. Continue on your way.”
“Wait here,” said Nicolae Malaxa, as if the old man might vanish in the meantime, and then he went back to his car.
He climbed into the back of the motorcar and placed his briefcase on his knees. The uniformed chauffeur turned his head, ready to help at a moment’s notice, but keeping his hands, enclosed in short leather gloves, on the wheel. As he told anyone patient enough to listen to his stories, he had been in Malaxa’s service from the very beginning, when the foundation stone of the Malaxa Factories was laid.
His name was Nicolae, like his master’s, but everybody called him Nicušor, whereas they called Mr Malaxa Nick. His matching name, his agile eye, and the swiftness with which he did Mr Malaxa’s bidding had led the industrialist to make him his chauffeur and right hand man. Nicušor had come to know Nick Malaxa better than anybody else, although in recent years the whole of Bucharest boasted they knew him. Nicušor knew he was superstitious. He never set out on an important journey without first visiting Serafim, the old beggar on the corner by the Amzei Church, to give him a few coins.
“We are not the ones who make and unmake this world, Nicušor,” Mr Malaxa was wont to tell his chauffeur. “The world is already made, and it is fitting that we give its masters their obol. We also pay taxes to the State, am I right ?”
And Nick Malaxa would wink at him, letting out two barks of laughter, much to Nicušor’s bewilderment. When Malaxa spoke to him that way, he would have liked to ask him two questions, namely : Was old man Serafim one of the masters of the world that Malaxa was always talking about ? And what did he mean when he said : “We also pay taxes to the State” ? Did “also the State” mean the State as well as the Church ?
Nicušor was in the process of a complex decipherment of the meanings of his master’s words and above all the meaning of his winks and barks of laughter. But the process was not going well. The meanings remained hidden to the chauffeur of the black Cadillac. At times, he was fearful that Mr Malaxa meant taxes to a God who had descended into Serafim, but he quickly put aside that blasphemous thought, giving his head a shake to make sure no trace of the thought was left, and said to himself :
“How should I know what you mean, Mr Malaxa ? You know better than I do.”
Before taking an important step, Nick Malaxa never neglected to visit Serafim and place a couple of coins in his palm.
But this time, a couple of coins did not seem sufficient. Malaxa laid his briefcase on his knees and opened it, as his chauffeur looked on, ready to leap into action at a single word. Malaxa examined the interior of the briefcase, presumably still at a loss. On the street, two young ladies passed by, on the arm of a gentleman, letting out spoiled, coquettish cries whenever a drop of water splashed their fine silk stockings.
Suddenly decided, Malaxa took a banknote from his briefcase and got out of the motorcar once again.
Under the watchful eyes of the chauffeur, the briefcase full of banknotes remained on the back seat of the black Cadillac, which was as powerfully tensed as a thoroughbred horse. Nick Malaxa, owner of the Malaxa Locomotive Factories, was on his way to the Palace, for a reception hosted by King Carol II. He had great expectations. For two years he had been preparing a new contract with the state. For the last two years Romania had not had to import any locomotives, thanks to his factories.
That evening the briefcase was to play its part in the preparations. From the one hundred million lei inside it, Nick Malaxa had just removed a banknote for Serafim, the man who bore him and half of Bucharest luck. Mr Malaxa was sure that both sums would be well spent : the money for the King and the money for the beggar.
He had inherited his skill with money from Neculai, one of the first of his family to be born on Romanian soil. His grandfather Neculai had inherited it from his father Iancu and grandfather Mihalache Malaxa, from old Zagoria in the sacred mountains of Pindus. Iancu had still been alive when Nick Malaxa was little. Nick had looked into his eyes, thereby receiving in his soul the endless lines of his Aromanian craftsmen forbears, dwellers in the stony land of Zagoria.
To encounter in this world the generations of the distant past is something magical. The eyes of a great grandfather as old as time, whom Death, being too busy, has left behind in this world, are charged with the curious eyes of forbear after forbear who have departed for the next world. Closer to the family dead than its living members, the great grandfather lent them his weary and now rather useless eyes, so that through them they, the ancestors in the next world, might see that scion who continued the line they had begun.
Abandoned by the soothing lights of the familiar world and charged with the deep mysteries of the higher world, the eyes of the great grandfather, who either did not wish or was not yet able to depart, searched the eyes of the small child. Deep in those eyes he sought the meaning of his journey. Newly emerged from his ancestors, the child, for whom the barriers between the two worlds had not yet fully come down, let himself be examined, as if aware of his destiny and his purpose.
The gaze of a great grandfather almost on the point of sleep as he looks at a great grandson newly awakened to this world is like the passing of a baton. In the silent gaze of old man Iancu, Nick Malaxa had seen the money saved up over the years by another ancestor for the long journey he intended for the entire family. He had seen the father of his ancestor Iancu, Mihalache Malaxa, the potter.
Translated by Alistair Ian Blyth