Footwear for Dolls
To them the summer seemed short and not at all sultry, even though the endless stifling heat melted men and withered hapless animals alive. The fury of the sun paled before the ardour of their hearts, without the dentist and the nanny being spared the torment around them : they perspired, they grew faint, their faces were flushed, but not for a moment did they think that the dog days were to blame, ascribing their frissons and fevers to the fire of love. After her masters set off to Belgrade, drawn like moths to the flickering crown, Elena had left the estate at Hereºti and settled into a poky room, situated in the palace courtyard of the grandees of the Nikolic family from Rudna, in the Udricani quarter of Bucharest, where the rumbling of the carriages, the whinnying of the horses, and the cries of the millet-beer hawkers were incessant. The way to the surgery of the German doctor who strove to heal her gums was not long, and so, twice a week, with the baron’s permission, she would inform the overseer that she was going out for a few hours, on foot, in order to treat her ailment. And, in those hours together, without ever having gone upstairs, they would find plenty to do, so much so that they would forget that the days were hot and sticky. In that room with its waxed floors and Anatolian carpet, with its rarely mentioned dentist’s chair by the window, a chair with a single, central leg and reclining back (upholstered in blue velvet, not like the blue of her eyes, but a different blue, a kind of navy blue), next to the display cabinet with its host of potions, powders, and surgical instruments, next to the anatomical charts hanging on the walls, they sought and slowly discovered each other, but not completely, for they both knew (or at least suspected) the meaning of propriety and esteem. Amid so many conversations, in the pauses between words, silences and illusions the skirts of Miss Dukovic would never be lifted all the way, each visit they ascended a further one or two inches, in the latter part of July they had reached a little above the knee, then, at the beginning of August, half way up the thigh, and finally, when the calendars were preparing to greet the month of September, a mere palm’s width higher, sufficient for the quivering, milky white skin – velvety as not even velvet can be – to be caressed. And it was caressed at leisure, lightly, with the tips of the fingers, with fingers entire, with the forehead, with the nose, with the chin. Sometimes, suspended in the fluid of time, while the tweezers, chisels, needles, spatulas, pipettes and forceps coyly kept watch, their mouths would seem inseparable, and their tongues writhed together, coiling and ravenous. One Wednesday, just as the hubbub of Lipscani was coming to a boil, it happed that the skirts of her dress remained in their wonted place at her ankles, and it was her décolletage, fastened with small green buttons, that yielded. Thin and pale, with his chestnut hair and hazel eyes, with his opaque (fortunate and sorrowful, Berlinese and Balkanic, joyful and agonising) histories, Joseph Strauss buried his face in the breast of Elena Dukovic and wept. He was not pushed away, neither when he unfastened the sixteen buttons, nor when he let the cloth and the lace glide down naked shoulders, nor when he suddenly roared with laughter, as though in his soul there was not enough room for all the things that had accumulated therein. His tears moistened her breasts, they mingled with droplets of perspiration and trickled towards her belly, they ran around her tummy button and flowed ever lower, and Elena clasped his neck in her arms and squeezed him tightly, as tightly as she could, until they lost count of the moments and one of her nipples, who knows which, came into his lips. And that nipple, like a ripe bramble, somehow bulged and, in time, began to throb and to breathe like a swallow’s chick. Thinking of soaring and of flight, Joseph removed one of her sandals, the right, and kissed the pink foot and nibbled the big toe, which quivered and tried to touch the firmament of his palate, a firmament different than summer’s dusty heavens. The young woman, who usually had a little boy and a little girl to look after (coddling and scolding them alike in Serbian), slipped her hands under her dress, seeking to free herself of her suspender belts, of her white linen undergarments, of her slip, of her silk stockings, of all that was underneath. Herr Strauss, the dentist, even if he did not then regard himself as German or a doctor, clasped her hands and prevented her. Without his head entering beneath the pleats of her dress, but rather from above, he kissed the small hollow between her thighs, firmly, where the hair must have been as black as her tresses, curlier and sparser. Then he lifted her from the blue-felt upholstered chair and, while Elena kept her eyes shut and her teeth clenched, he bore her in his arms, making a circuit of the room, rocking her and whispering to her a host of things, as though to a child with a fever and spasms.
Although they had never ascended to the first floor of his redbrick house, Joseph decided one morning, while draining a cup of tea, that it was, at last, time for his two loves to meet. And so he came down with the wicker basket, very early, before any bleary-eyed tradesmen could knock at the door of his surgery, their jaws swollen and teeth doused in alcohol. Entering after lunch, Miss Dukovic, who was wearing a beige hat and had just folded her parasol, came across a sleeping tomcat, with one white ear, one black, lolling on the chair with a single leg. It was as though he too was waiting to be rid of painful gums. The tomcat’s eyes blinked open, and, moving only the tip of his tail, he regarded her at length, not as though she was a bird (because then he would have rushed to tear her to pieces), but perhaps as though she was a fairy from his feline dreams.
In all their walks through blazing Bucharest, a city ruled by torrid heat and swarms of flies, they never ceased telling each other the stories of their lives. As the overseer of the houses of Theodore Nikolic of Rudna was inattentive to the comings and goings of the nanny, being more concerned with carafes of red wine, with keeping the woodpile full, with sleeping, with repairing the drainpipes and window shutters, with the haunches of the kitchen women, with the condition of the stallions in the stables, and with how the dice fell (when he played backgammon or shot craps, for handsome sums), Elena often found reasons to go out of the gate, inventing and lying more than she had in the last ten years put together. And, if she had not uttered so many cock-and-bull stories in the last ten years, then she had certainly not told as many in the other seven, the first years of her life. Totting up her fabrications, one afternoon Herr Strauss deduced her age, for he had never ventured to ask her. At the age of thirty-two (and a half), he felt old, but that thought quickly shattered, allowing him to imagine and to hope that the measureless time to come would laugh in the face of his past. Their meetings took place in secret, at none too customary hours, and so they had to find deserted, hidden-away areas of the city, so that they would not bump into any acquaintances of the baron or his servants. At least at first, in July, Joseph would wrack his brains in search of spots where they might meet each other or winding lanes down which they might walk. And so it was that for three whole weeks Miss Dukovic adored the brioche and poppy-seed cakes of Peter Bykow, crossing the threshold of his shop almost daily, after lunch, when the torpid heat was at its height. She would buy two of each and, with the parcel in her hands, always looking at the floorboards and not the baker’s face, she would enter the back room, beyond an annoyingly squeaky door. There, where everything was white with flour dust, she would await the dentist, the healer of her heart, if not her gums, sitting on a clean, checked blanket, laid over a heap of sacks. She did not permit herself to remain within for more than quarter of an hour, but in that brief segment of time, as tart as a slice of strudel, they would manage to grow dizzy. It was also then, around the middle of the month, that they profited from the feast of St Elijah, and took shelter in the courtyard of the Stavropoleos Church Inn, sitting on some peeled logs, where she stuffed his head with the virtues, travails and good deeds of the Prophet, also describing to him a few Serbian customs, above all those linked to plum brandy and beekeeping. As women had no business at a barber’s, they were unable to enjoy the immediate help of Otto Huer, but they received the gifts of his most cunning ideas. The barber, compassionate towards the amours of moggies and those of dear friends alike, remembered that he knew Vasile the warden of Colþei Tower, a fat man with nine children, who would always be laughing at anything at all. And so, thanks to his lather brush, razor and scissors, to his prattle during the moments when the cheeks of the warden were filling up with foam, and the bristles were vanishing between the thin, narrow blade, the two were able to climb to the top of the tallest structure in the city. They were not interested in spotting far-off fires, they did not think of the tower’s constructors (Swedish soldiers from the army of Karl XII, roaming the East after the defeat at Poltava), they counted the steps, there were one hundred and eighty-eight, they had no idea that there had been two hundred and fourteen (until the devastating earthquake of October 1802, which had lopped off the building’s peak), they gazed into the distance, astonished and embracing, silent, perspiring for all too many reasons : the stifling heat, the spiral ascent, the joy, the insatiability, and affection for the hundreds of swallows that had made their nests beneath the eaves. From high above, Bucharest revealed itself in a way they could never have seen or guessed. The clouds of dust that followed the carts and carriages looked like tiny splotches, the roofs and chimneys awaited the rains and cold, the spires of the churches and the belfries seemingly no longer scraped the sky, the Dîmboviþa River gleamed brightly, and the Bucureºtioara dully, because its waters were differently oriented to the points of the compass, the palace of the prince, from which Carol I was certainly absent (driven away by the sweltering heat, by affairs of state, and by boredom), was no longer any more majestic than the boyar houses, the vacant plots looked brownish red, and the clusters of woodland a dusty green, like olives immersed in brine, the hospital, the school and the monastery at the base of the tower seemed stunted, one hundred and fifty thousand souls were at their feet, each living by his own law and all by the laws of the Prince and the United Principalities, eating or dozing (because it was that time of day), breathing and sweating. They themselves could barely quieten their panting and their clothes were damp, under the armpits, at the chest, and who knows where else. Joseph, who very well understood that he was not in mid-air, but for all that believed he was in flight, withdrew his hand from hers and sought something in the pocket of his waistcoat. Thence he pulled out a gilded watch, with a chain, on the back of whose lid two names were engraved, Gertrude and Irma. And, in their good habit of telling the story of their lives, not in chronological order, but all in a jumble, as though they were snapping off pieces of their own biographies, he began to describe to Miss Dukovic something he had described to no other, namely how his mother and sister had perished, consumed in a fire. First he told her about a poisonous mushroom, Amanita muscaria, red, with white pimples, which the folk beneath their eyes, in the city stretched below, called Snake’s Hat or Snake Sponge, and some called Fliegenpilz, about the way in which it could be dried and powdered, about the enchanted powers of the tea prepared from the fine dust, somewhat like the gifts of opium, but more seductive and restful, about the longing those who tasted that brew would have to drink it once more, about their desire no longer to know about anything or anyone, about flight from the world, about the serenity and acceptance which could be read on their faces, about their gigantic indifference. Absorbed by the deceptive tea, which he himself, a young lad fascinated by the glass vials and miracles of the laboratory, had on a number of occasions prepared for them, his mother and sister had slowly grown distant from their fellow men, they had set out along the road of stars and beatitude, one evening of blustering wind they had forgotten about the kettle on the hob, leaving it to buckle and burst into flame, then (perhaps) applauding the flames, (perhaps) blowing on them, allowing them to overwhelm the curtains, carpets, furniture, thick-beamed walls, and (perhaps) even their bodies. He felt a dreadful pain in his chest, it was suffocating him, but he managed to imbibe enough of the burning air of the afternoon, when Elena did not try to discover the recipe for the tea, but embraced him, tightly, more tightly than when he had wept between her dugs. Somewhere towards the horizon, vague, hazy outlines could be distinguished, and the dentist leaned his elbows on the balustrade under the shingle roof. He examined them for a long time and gave a start, because he recognised the mountains.
They slowly descended the rickety, winding steps. They stooped, careful not to scrape the ceiling with the crowns of their heads and not to bump against the doorjambs. Below, in the arched passageway of the tower, where not just ordinary folk but even circus stilt-walkers could have easily had headroom, they straightened their backs and smiled. Joseph was thinking of that fat Vasile, always huffing and puffing up the minaret-like stair, and Elena Dukovic was not thinking of anything, she merely felt a need to smile. Soon, even if no one glimpsed them anywhere, neither in the rays of the sun nor in the shade, they remembered the insufferable face of the overseer, their sole enemy. At a quarter past three, Dusan, the Nikolic family’s trusty man, would certainly be snoring in the cellar of the Udricani quarter, taking his siesta on a straw mattress, but his eyes saw through those of others and his ears heard many things. As ever, Herr Strauss set off first, the nanny following him twenty paces behind, so that it would enter no one’s head that they were walking together or that there was any connexion between them. They headed downhill, towards the Catholic Church, leaving behind them the Kiesch Hotel, the old Austrian consulate, the courtyard of Doctor Marsille, and the freshly whitewashed façade of the Hagi-Moscu Palace. Before them was a long lane and the future, gentle and overrun with the flurry of drying sheets, as the dentist had been hoping, mysterious and resounding with the prattle of children, in the imagination of Miss Dukovic, but first they would have to traverse the weeks at the tail-end of summer and, before that, to bring to a close that day which rested under the sign of fire, at least because it was torrid, if not because of the story of the devastating fire. And they did not hurry. They felt good, warm, they found no reason to rush. In the shops of the Colþei Inn, while Joseph was admiring the saddles, harnesses, bridles and spurs in a window, a woman with small booties, like a doll’s, passed alongside him, lightly touched his shoulder, then swung her parasol, which she kept closed, and went on her way, in her blue dress, as though she were floating. When she had gone some twenty paces, the doctor abandoned looking at the items of harness laid out on shelves and hanging from hooks, and strolled on. Half way across the fenced-in vacant plot next to the Kalinderu Church, over the road from the Bucuresciu Caravanserai (where the windows were covered by thick white drapes, behind which the Sultan’s emissaries were dozing or cooling themselves with infusions of mint, lemon and aniseed), Elena stopped for a while, opened her parasol with a snap, and adjusted the brim of her hat, allowing the tall thin man who earlier had been standing stock-still on the pavement to overtake her by almost twenty paces. Thus they walked, overtaking each other as though by chance, until beyond the portion where the macadam disappeared and the lane was paved with wooden beams. Then they grew smaller and smaller and veered left, one after the other, vanishing from the gaze of a fat man with nine children, who, watching them from the pinnacle of the highest structure in the city, was chortling and hiccoughing.
Translated by Alistair Ian Blyth