I. The red cork
At the crack of dawn, Maxima was taken out into the square under the gaze of the scavengers sweeping around the Walachisches Tor. I knew what would follow. I gathered a few things and left by the back door. The butchers carrying their beef carcasses passed by me without a glance. I walked quickly to the end of the street. All around it was deserted, although I could well imagine that there were eyes pressed up against all the net curtains. When I got to Burchioiu’s house I realized that I couldn’t simply walk past, especially as the wind was blowing on the veranda and the door seemed ajar. Had I had the strength of spirit, I would have cut his throat. Burchioiu was in a deep, dreamless sleep. I tarried for a minute, my only care being that I might lose something, one of the many small things that I was attached to. All my power was contained in my yellow dress, which Maxima had made for me from nankeen and velvet, with pockets, flounces, and cuffs enough to hold the contents of a whole chest. What did I not have tucked away in that dress! Salts, seeds, and powders, little phials of amonitum under oil, aqua phosphori, the flower of death, and so many other things that a lifetime would not suffice to tell of them all. And I never went anywhere without my little box of saltpetre, in which thousands of sparks lay dormant.
Burchioiu lay on his back snoring, like a rag flapping in the wind. And that’s how he remained fixed in my memory—a shadowy face, with big ears. When I was about to go, I saw one of his hats in the alcove by the door, and I started. What sadness there is in clothes that no one wears any more!
I ran to catch the braşoveancă, caring nothing for the eyes that followed me. Even if I had gone at walking pace, anyone could have told that I was fleeing.
The post carriage was full, but when I got out my bag, the postilion found me a good place, a window seat. I leaned on the frame that had been polished by hundreds of elbows, and as the diligence raced off, I saw for the last time the red arch of the Walachisches Tor, under which Maxima was being shoved along, and further on, the gallows smeared with tar. I pulled down the blind, immersing myself in its lining of aging cotton. For as long as I live, the thought of her death will recall to my mind the flowers of that tapestry. And so I left Braşov behind me, its streets melting as the smoke swallowed them. Even the red gates dissolved, and with them the petrified figure of my dear grandmother.
Any flight has the taste of sin about it; it turns you into a beggar. Whoever said that running away is a healthy thing was never a fugitive, only a watcher from the edges. My flight looked like a stain of phlegm that I could never wash off. Anyone could see it on me; every word I spoke was kneaded in it. But at that moment, faced with the threat of the guards and with the memory of Burchioiu fresh in my soul, it seemed to me that flight was the only way and the diligence my salvation. Indeed I even saw myself pushed from behind by Sator, convinced as I was that my grandmother had made him my protector.
In her view, there was only one place that pulsated with life, and that was Bucharest. It was from Bucharest that she had set out years before. It was there that her house was, where my father had grown up and where I myself had first filled my lungs with air. It was in Bucharest that the Holy Zaval lived.
The diligence floated through clouds of dust, raised by the breath of Sator, and I dreamed of the moment when I would find comfort in the embrace of my dear old uncle, in the city of my childhood and of all my dreams, dreams that still flowed from the memory of Maxima, even beyond the grave. Zaval, she used to tell me, was the most important man in the city, and all the world revolved around our houses. We were the only people that counted. And when I say ‘we’, I mean Maxima, Zaval, and only in the third place myself, taking consolation from the thought that I already had a brilliant future reserved for me. No thought of mine ever flew out to the rest of the world. The others, the people who populated the city, bustling about in the streets, proud of their houses or their carriages, were all without any value. They did not know of the existence of Sator; they could not see where life really moved. They were no more than shadows, which I could have wiped away by raising a finger. But first I had to get to our houses, and to find the other Satorini.
It was with these convictions in my heart that I approached the city, little suspecting that the real centre of the world was a renowned cook.
That torrid autumn, no one was talking about anything except the abducted cook. Every time should be judged by the events that set it alight. If I ask myself now what I remember from that autumn, it is the cook that comes in first place.
All this happened in the time of Kostas, for one of the greatest amusements of the Sublime Porte was to fool some Greek with the notion that he could make himself lord and master over the land of Wallachia for the modest price of a mere four hundred bags of loose change. No one had any idea what the price of a country should be. But it was not the real value that counted, so much as that ‘yours for only…’, which even today makes people restless, letting it be known that there’s a bargain on offer. Once led up the garden path, the bargain hunter handed over the money bags, and there and then became the master of Wallachia, where he fondly imagined he was going to spend the rest of his days, with subjects falling around his feet. A year later, however, another sucker for a cut-price offer would turn up, with another four hundred bags. Consequently, when I arrived there, Bucharest had already had the pleasure of being ruled by at least thirty Greeks, not to mention the Russian army, which made its way there from time to time, and drove out whoever happened to be the ruler, without a thought for the expense that the poor man had incurred. Fortunately the soldiers had itchy feet and they never stayed very long.
The Turks themselves showed no desire for this throne, but were content to sell it to the Greeks and, of course, since they took care always to keep it occupied, that meant another four hundred bags from one of their subjects, plus gifts, gold watches, furs, and in general fine quality items, the sort of things that do good to the heart of a Turk.
The Greek who was then ruling in Wallachia, Kostas by name, was a great gourmet. And it so happened that at the time there was an expert cook living in Bucharest, namely Silica, a tiny little Gypsy with no small conceit of himself. For him, the kitchen was a sort of shrine. Every one of his dishes looked as grand as a statue on its way to being set up in Lipscani Square. He made steaks rolled in almond powder, smeared with honey and cinnamon. He was the master of hops, scalding the leaves only so he could bring them back to life again with pepper. But his favourite dish was sweet eggs. To help you understand, let me tell you with what passion he prepared them. He boiled them first in peppermint leaves. Once that was finished, he cut them in two and took out their yolks, which he mashed into cream sprinkled with cranberries and other preserved fruits, and then he stuffed this mixture back into the whites. It was right at the end that the real art came into play, when he covered the egg with a conserve of citrons and cinnamon and the thin creamy layer, whose secret is long lost, trembled under the brittle crust. He liked to make crayfish balls, especially soaked in rose or plum vinegar. And as for his sausages! No one could equal the way he matched the ingredients of the filling, especially if they included whey cheese, meats rubbed with raw garlic, liver or brain rolled in sesame, umbrella pine nuts, and other seeds that one could scarcely guess at. And his walnut and fruit juice jelly cakes would leave anyone gaping, not just because of their taste, but also for the forms they took, like castles melting under the weight of snowfalls. And he didn’t just make food for ravenous stomachs, but also for desperate souls. Here I might mention the cockchafer beetles, soaked overnight in wine and then roasted on hot coals. He was the godfather of liqueurs, the maestro of afyon, and a sort of pater veneni, who knew elixirs against world-weariness and lassitude but also undreamed-of sauces that were good for the sicknesses of the blood.
In each dish he prepared, he would invest ten times as much energy as any other cook. Even for an ordinary nettle borscht, for example, he would scour the markets, tasting the whey himself to be sure of the right sour taste. Thus he had become a sort of terror of the stall-holders, although they wouldn’t even have passed the time of day with him if it hadn’t been for Caterina Greceanu. Silica was born of a Gypsy family who bore the mark of a great boyar house. For any slave has the seal of his master imprinted on his face, in his movements, and even in the way he carries the rags he wears. In Bucharest especially, it is never hard to tell who some Gypsy or other belongs to, whether he was raised in the household or bought at the market after passing through many hands. Silica looked like a fussy little fellow, neither young nor yet old, but at an age where you could be sure that he was not going to change.
It was on this cook that the Greek, who at that moment was the rightful master of a country for which he had handed over four hundred bags of money, cast his eye. After he had been invited to dinner in the Greceanu house, Kostas, mighty prince and mighty gourmet, ordered that the cook be inventoried among the moveable goods of the Palace, thus quite simply stealing him from his mistress.
Such a thing would hitherto have been inconceivable. It was unheard of for a Gypsy who had been inherited, with a provenance as indisputable as it was in the present case, to be taken from the house of his mistress, who indeed was herself not just anybody.
Caterina’s three steps
Caterina Greceanu, known to everyone simply as ‘the Greceancă’, the way one might say ‘the Empress’, was someone it would have been hard not to notice. If she appeared in the midst of a crowd, they made way for her, and if she opened her mouth, the sort of silence fell that tells you that you’re in the presence of someone who will always be a cut above you. She had been married for a single night, to a rich man of the highest degree who had died on the very night of their wedding. It was put about that he had been stung by a wasp, although no one believed that someone could die of such a thing. When Caterina’s carriage passed along the Princely Way, veils fluttered from its windows, and thalers and other silver coins were left in its wake, driving the common sort crazy. It was said that she was the richest woman in Bucharest, and that, in the end, was what determined her fate.
After Kostas, the new Prince of Wallachia, had stolen her cook, Greceanu took what she considered to be three necessary steps. First, she sought justice from the Metropolitan, but he merely shrugged his shoulders impotently. Kostas had made out all the necessary papers for the cook, enrolling him in the category of slaves who had been abused by their masters. Indeed there were even several witnesses who swore that his life would have been in danger if he had tarried another hour in the Greceanu household.
What was to be done? At the end of the day, the Greek was just another Greek, whereas Caterina had behind her the whole Greceanu family, all the Greceanus who had ever lived on the territory of Wallachia, and who drew their bloodline not from some wretched Greek, as one might guess from the name, but from a Romanian of long ago who had come from acrp the Danube and for that reason had been wrongfully nicknamed ‘the Greek’—which at least was better than if they had called him ‘the wily Turk’.
Disgusted at the impotence of the Metropolitan, Caterina resorted to a second approach, and summoned minstrels. Once your deeds were on their lips, not even the waters of the Danube could wash you clean. There wasn’t even any need for her to tell them what she wanted, because the whole city knew anyway.
‘How would you like it, your ladyship? Just the story? Or perhaps with about a bit of wailing for a refrain?’
‘As you wish, as long as it gets into every alley!’ replied Caterina, without a glance at the minstrel, who had already started to hum the immortal song that even today can still be heard in the taverns of Bucharest:
In Greceanu’s house they weep all day
The Voda’s taken their cook away...
Anyway, when it came to the third step taken by Caterina, I was involved in that myself, even without wishing to be, on the very first night after I arrived in Bucharest. But first I have to tell you about my arrival in the city, because right from the first moments, without even knowing it, I came up against the story of Caterina’s cook.
Translated by James Christian Brown