She did not seem beautiful to me, especially in the beginning, but even for a long time after that, and then not until later did I come to realise that she was a jewel dropped into the murky waters of a pond, completely out of place in the Gorgani slum, where she seemed to have fallen from the skies, just like the flying Hasan Çelebi, whose name was given to a bridge. She was from another part of the world, another life even, and her power did not come from the kind of beauty that stops you in your tracks, but from something invisible and contagious, arising after you made the mistake of talking to her because, as you were listening to her, a soap bubble began to surround you and her words, leaving you with no escape. What had been bestowed upon her by fate was possessed by very few people. When I think of her, an image comes to mind of a fingernail-sized flower, glowing deep red, known as the Devil’s Blood. The moment you see it you feel compelled to draw it to your nose, not so much as to smell its perfume, but because you expect it to be startled by your paying it attention. And once you inhale its scent you are as good as dead, for if you have been so foolish to have done so, its scent rises up through your nostrils to then disperse throughout your flesh, taking control over your lungs and blood, and in the end over your brain, which cannot resist it. And what a treacherous scent is hidden in its petals! At first you are flooded by the sweet and gentle smell of bread, fresh out of the oven, so overwhelming and pure, but just enough to numb your fears and sadness. And only afterwards does its true scent reach you, the scent of crushed tendrils, in which lay hidden the aspirations of unripe grapes and the wretched joys of the ripened fruit. This is the actual fragrance that overcomes you and transforms you forever into a slave. And, once touched by its perfume, you forget everything you had loved until then, you stop liking what you used to like, you have no more desires and no more hopes. If tomorrow thugs were to break into your house and start chopping your family into pieces, you would merely stand off to the side, doing nothing, numbed by the dreams of a flower.
She was exactly like that flower, I felt her power that morning when she stepped out of the apothecary. She wore a dress I could hear whispering with every move, lace swaying on soft waves of sendal. And, watching her eyes, looking to gauge their path, I discovered the blue carriage, in which a man sat, sighing. There were two people watching each other discreetly: a woman, besieged by whispers, and a man who was pretending to have no part in this, casting his eyes off into the far distance through the carriage window, although it was crystal clear for anyone that in the whole of Bucharest, if not in the whole of the world, they were alone but for each other.
He was looking straight ahead, but from the corner of his eye a tear glimmered, the kind that turns a man into a hunted beast. From the folds of her dress bees flew forth, and her eyes, emanating deadly perfumes, were finding their way towards the blue carriage. He would sooner die than look at her, but his cheek was enraged, like that of a man coerced, while she was affronted by his indifference, I could see that clearly in the way she blinked, rapidly, leaving behind waves of accusations from which he would no longer be able to escape.
And I understood that not only was I fated to see them again, searching for each other with the same looks which clearly showed that love’s fiery sphere had started to grow between them, but there was also something else, meant only for me. Without wanting to, I had entered the realm of shadows, where you cannot be seen. They were the only ones that could be seen, while I, until then at the centre of the story, was now drifting through the treacherous fog of strange desires, like a poor fly blown about in the wind.
This woman with whispering dresses and shifting eyes was Despina, the daughter of Baleanu, but actually his half-daughter, because this kind of beings always seem to have dubious origins. What I need to tell you first however is that Baleanu, who passed himself off as a boyar, did not hail from the great Baleanu family, as he would have had you believe. He was born into a family of swarthy merchants, seething with malcontent. Baleanu was a man who lived by following his heart and who had discarded his true name in his youth, by insisting that everyone call him Baleanu, as if he were the only one in Bucharest, a vestige of the old aristocracy which was swept from history by the Prince Brâncoveanu. And maybe everything would have worked out his way if he hadn’t married Mușa, the famous singer of the Bucharest from that time, a woman who had brought happiness at first and then turned his life upside down. They had been in love for a long, hot summer, filling the entire neighbourhood of Gorgani with envy for the carriages adorned with flowers and for their faces, which showed their inner contentment in a defiant way. Baleanu was rich, and she… what can I tell you about her? Even though she only sang at the Royal Palace or for very small, private engagements, her fame had spread, not due to her voice, but for her luxurious dresses. Very few had heard her sing, but everyone knew her name.
Their first child was Haralambie, named after the saint celebrated on his day of birth. For a year, every heart in the Baleanu household beat in the same rhythm as the cries of the boy, and his parents floated on billowy waves.
But there is a time that descends upon the world when you least expect it, something like the mouth of a wolf which breathes over forests and sometimes upon the head of a person of some importance, blowing out their dreams, erasing the paths which, until then, promised a sure future - and Mușa had left the house exactly during such a time. It was summer, and from behind the butcher’s the unsettling smell of crushed meat and bones was rising. She skirted the mound which still stands high even today in the middle of the slum and proceeded on to the market. And what a sight unfolded before her! The sky was sighing sleepily, and from under it one could hear the jingling of beads that evoked an earlier time. Mușa took lazy steps, dragging her slippers, enjoying the feeling of stepping over tiny stones that she could feel through new soles, listening to the vulgar happiness of glass and the cossetted whispers of round pearls. She rummaged through the bracelets and rings, she perused the amber jewelry, and in the end she stopped in front of a shop selling dessert accessories: silver teaspoons, coffee cups and crystal glasses, jam plates made of fragrant wood and particularly low tables, painstakingly inlaid or painted with women half-hidden in veils. Everything lost its allure however after glimpsed the the merchant selling them, a dark-skinned man, in whose eyes smoldered desires without hope – perfidious shoots, like sprigs of hemlock. Without taking his eyes off her, the merchant offered her a silver ibric, and in its reflections, bleached by the summer sun, swam the tiny fish of temptation.
Mușa disappeared without a trace, together with this nameless shopkeeper, and two years later a terribly tall stranger appeared at Baleanu’s door. He reached with his cane through the carriage window and rang the bell. When the door opened, he showed the servant a wicker basket. Shortly after this Baleanu himself descended to the door, rendered speechless by shock. He listened to this polite, lanky man, and when the stranger disappeared the locals noticed that Baleanu was left holding a little child in his arms, a girl, whom he named Despina.
All the parental love was showered over Haralambie, as it should have been. He was the true child of Mușa, he was her mirror. Inside him beat the hopes of Baleanu and the envy of the Gorgani from that summer, when flower-adorned carriages drove through the gates of the Baleanu household. Haralambie was the future master, the heir.
And while the boy, lovingly called Lambru by everyone, enjoyed every attention, the girl was left in the care of the servants. She wanted for nothing, and no one could have ever said that Baleanu did not love his daughter, or at least Mușa’s daughter, as his love for Mușa was infinite, but he did not go out of his way to see her either, so weeks could pass at a time without him having any inkling about her whereabouts. And that is how Despina grew up, passing as the daughter of the honourable Baleanu, who was by then not only a sort of pillar of the Gorgani slum, but had also bestowed upon him the honorific title of Grand Cupbearer.
You could recognise Despina anywhere from her alabaster dresses, always of the same cut, so you could not tell if they were from this season or the last. They all featured subdued flowers in the buttery froth of the expensive fabrics, melting petals swallowed up by soft sandy dunes: shamrocks, hollyhocks and thin boughs, French rose leaves floating on waters of chintz, silk or other such fabrics.
I remember her ascending into the carriage, with her skirt puffed up by the wind trailing behind.
Sadness seemed to always bypass this girl, descendant of merchants, if we also include the dark-skinned seller of chisele.
At the same time, you couldn’t call her happy either, rather she seemed to always be in conversation with someone unseen or, as my mother used to say, she lived in her own world, where she did not seem to lack anything. Even though she was tall, she did not impose respect through her stature, rather through her posture, reminiscent of a parasol in a new shoe. It’s good we got to this point in the story, as I must tell you all about Despina’s shoes. I do not know where she bought them, as they were not from the local shops, and they were always delivered in mysterious boxes brought to the door by couriers. They were always high-heeled shoes, with thick heels, fashioned from leather so fine that they made you want to steal them, to use them as money bags or gloves to wear at parties. They were not made of the usual saffian, but a different type of leather, completely smooth, without any sheen. And what can I say about the colours? While the dresses were pale in colour, her shoes seemed to come alive with shades I could not find names for, from the rosé of young grapes to the green of lily pads. She did not like tassels, though they were all the rage in Bucharest, as she preferred buckles set on the face of the shoe, like some foreign tools, tiny jewels or small mother-of pearl buttons, so you always knew those were her feet.
And that’s just the shoes, as she also had other unbelievable things delivered to her: silver plated spyglasses, velvet covered books, dolls as tall as her, all of these ordered through the purveyors to the Baleanu household; once she had even received from Brasov a box of Alexandrian laurel in which a singing elf was held captive. The lights in her chamber burned until dawn, and sometimes shadows were seen moving about or unearthly voices were heard. Wherever she went the glasses made sounds and the plates on the tables vibrated, as if they were touched by the hand of a ghost.
One night, when everyone in the house was asleep, the chest in the living room opened on its own and one of Despina’s dresses started floating towards the door, like a raven in search of prey. The cook, who was up for whatever reason that night, saw the silk dress drifting out the door on a gust of wind and she ran to the window, from where she followed the path of the dress among the stalls, through the Gorgani market, where it disappeared swallowed by the insatiable shadows of the night.
Captain Manciu, who did not believe in ghosts, turned the slum upside down trying to find the missing dress, but it was all in vain. Some said it had been taken to one of the forests in Cotroceni, the one haunted by a spectre.
But this happened many years before the autumn day I started to tell you about, the day when out the window of a carriage a man looked on with glaring indifference, and Despina stepped out of the apothecary, wearing a murmuring dress. Behind her the door she had just closed seemed to quiver, and ahead of her the street lay mobbed by market goers, a street which, even though it was named after the boyar Brezoianu, could only be considered to belong in its entirety to Lambru the Apothecary, as his house spanned the area between the two major crossroads, which made it impossible not to be seen from any direction from which you might be coming, in particular as it featured a one-of-a kind terrace filled with flowers. Oleanders lined the sides, and rich waves of ivy cascaded down the railings. Between the flowers you could glimpse white statues, brought from unknown countries, white marble silhouettes just descended from heaven. The main door of the house was painted in a colour rarely seen, a shade of ripe Tibetan apricot, steeped in wine. But there were also side entrances, one for the apothecary and another that accessed the courtyard, where the garden was, wherein stood a plum tree famed for its fruit, as large as fists, which the thieves competed amongst themselves to steal.
In front of the house Despina Baleanu’s magnificent carriage could be seen, dressed in the same muted colours as her clothes, and on the other side of the road the fortune teller’s carriage dazzled in a high blue, which caught your eye and sent a lightning bolt through your heart.
On that day many people happened to be milling about on Strada Brezoianu, precisely at the time when Despina usually stopped by. But out of the entire crowd she could only see the blue carriage, which belonged to the fortune teller, who was respected by the whole of Bucharest because her predictions always came true. Only once was a candlemaker dissatisfied and had asked for his money back. But the fortune teller was not upset by this, especially as they were neighbours. She took out her purse and returned his money, and to maintain their good relations, she invited him over for a glass of wine. Overnight the disappointed candlemaker had lost all of his hair, which made him never to mention her name again – and since then there had been no more complaints about her predictions either.
Despina did not know that this woman, known as Ciptoreanca, was the owner of the blue carriage. She was only interested in Pantelimon, the man who was talking with the fortune teller. The carriage was new, and Pantelimon, who was a painter, had decorated its interior with peonies, and on one of the doors he had depicted a dog playing the cymbalom.
His words echoed in the street without Despina being able to make out what he was saying. “Don’t feel bad about the money,” he was saying, “look at how the tears drip from these flowers! Most people have no idea how hard it is to make white not look like a painted fence.”
Ciptoreanca was listening to him with doubt etched upon her face. She was actually observing him, as in her life as a fortune teller she had seen many people talking nonsense, while from their pores dripped honey, that drifting, delicate drizzle that connects two people. Pantelimon kept talking, and the fortune teller, pushing the painting to the back of her mind, cast her eye out the window.
The morning was dissipating, and in the new light Despina walked with small steps past the two, wearing a fabulous pair of shoes. They were neither blue, nor green, they were of a never-seen-before shade, a smoky shade of turquoise. On each of their faces sparkled a tiny silver button. Despina moved at her own pace, and the shoes made small sounds, due to their heels, which were also memorable, as they looked like some sort of bobbins ending with a silver ring. Ciptoreanca felt a wave of heat wash over her. Out of all the astounding things she had ever seen, these shoes topped them all. Next to them, even her new little carriage seemed dull, with the blue looking vulgar in comparison.
Despina finally reached her brougham, which looked like a Maltese chest, and it was easily recognisable due to the footman, attired in German brocade.
“Go”, she ordered the servant, who waited impassively, hanging from the side of the carriage cabin, “and tell my brother not to forget about dinner!”
The man jumped off his post quickly, ready to run, but Despina signaled to him to keep listening, and then, with her voice soft as silk, she whispered a few more words, asking him to find out who was sitting in the blue coach.
The day was just beginning, and I was struck by a fragrance that I was never to forget. And in that moment when I thought I was the sole witness to a story that had not yet begun, I heard the rumbling of wheels, and behind me Mărmănjica made her appearance.
Translated by Daniele & Matthew Riain