Short stories, "Ego. Prose" series, Polirom, 2009, 240 pages
Old Man Mihai and Comrade God
The cry of a bald coot boomed in his ears from close by, as if the damned bird had been asleep next to him in the boat and at the first glimmer of morning suddenly realised in what unfriendly company it had spent the night.
“I’ll wring that blasted coot’s neck! One-two it screeches. You’d think it was an owl. Not only does it live off my fish, but it makes a racket as well… Am I not right, Iliuţă? …Iliuţă, are you asleep? You’re asleep. You haven’t woken up yet. What do you care?! Grub is grub, and not a care! Sleep! As for me, I can’t sleep at night for care.”
Old Man Mihai had probably had a nightmare. All night long he had tossed and turned, all but capsizing the boat.
A few weeks ago, when the dog days began, he had left his cabin, where the heat had become unbearable, and slept outdoors, in the boat moored to the bank. There was no question of him being afraid, on the contrary, he felt stronger, more capable of carrying out his duty in a fitting manner. The only unpleasant thing was the mosquitoes. But he had grown used to them. And there was something else, not exactly unpleasant, but rather strange: a few evenings before, the mooring line had come loose and Old Man Mihai had woken up toward daybreak, enveloped in mist, right in the middle of the lake. It seemed strange to him, because the knots he made never unravelled. But you never know. Things of the sort have happened.
Because he had left the oars on the wharf, to make more room, he had had to swim, pushing the boat. And he had poured out his ire by cursing Iliuţă, although the latter was in no way to blame for him leaving his oars on the shore and not tying the rope well enough.
He leaned over the side, gathered water in his fists, and poured it over the crown of his head, as if he were baptising himself. Then he leapt onto the shore and headed to the shed, whistling. He could not find the keys to the padlock and went back to the boat, searching by the flame of his lighter. The keys were by the binoculars. They must have fallen out of his pockets while he was tossing and turning in his sleep.
He unlocked the door to the shed, lit a candle, so as not to bang his head against anything, and looked to see whether everything was in order. He picked up a cloth and carefully wiped his motorcycle. In fact, it is wrong to say carefully, rather he wiped it lovingly, because Old Man Mihai loved his motorcycle as though instead of a motor it had a heart, as though the scuffed seat were the back of a fairy-tale steed. He had had it for years. Although he had no lack of money to buy himself another, he would never have spent it on a new motorcycle, like the ones you can see only in the city. He was convinced that without that old motorcycle he would have been nothing, no one would have been afraid of him and his whole life’s work would have come to nought. Moreover, he was convinced that no one loves you unless he is afraid of you. And Old Man Mihai, like any solitary man, desired to be loved.
“There now, Iliuţă, daddy’s almost finished!” he said from time to time, as he reached the boat with another sack.
He finished lugging the sacks, and cast the oars and a shovel into the boat. He climbed in, having locked the door to the shed. He lingered for a moment, to draw breath, trying to guess whether he would reach the middle of the lake before the sun peeked its head from behind the hills.
“Iliuţă, daddy, I woke up a bit late today. I don’t know what the devil was wrong with me, but the whole night my eyelids didn’t meet. Maybe because of the heat, the drought. Yes, yes. Iliuţă, daddy, there’ll be a big drought, I’m telling you. There’ll be searing heat. What do you think I dreamed last night? The lake had dried up, daddy. It was as flat as the palm of a hand. Like the palms of my hands, cracked from so many years of rowing. We were sitting at the bottom of the lake, and each fish crawled up to us writhing and began to speak. They spoke willy-nilly, like things that have been silent their whole lives. We listened to them all, to the very end, and we lined them up to the left and right of us. I don’t know how it all ended, because some damned coot woke me up. What do you make of it, Iliuţă? Could it be a sign? I don’t think it’s a good sign. I’m weary. From the heat, from old age, from the cigarettes.”
Old Man Mihai was still hale. Mounted on his motorcycle, he had enough life in him to chase away, to his last breath, any intruder who dared to come with a fishing rod to the shore of the lake. He was called Mihail, but he had won fame under the name Old Man Mihai. That was what everybody called him. This was the name everybody was afraid of. It was enough for someone to hear the weary snuffling of his motorcycle in order to take fright. This was because from all around there was no man so green as not to have coveted, at least once, Old Man Mihai’s fish. This was because anyone who had ever coveted Old Man Mihai’s fish had, at least once, been chased away by the motorcycle. Mounted on the motorcycle, whirling a whip above his head, cursing like blazes, he seemed more terrifying than a horde of pillaging Tartars.
Old Man Mihai also seemed terrifying because he never spoke to anybody. Since he had become guardian of the lake, the few words he exchanged with other folk were addressed to the workers from the hatchery, when he went to the central office to collect his wages, when they came to bring fish food, or when, every two years, they hauled in the fish.
Old Man Mihai’s heart ached whenever he had to part with his fish, but he reconciled himself to it by thinking that there would always be others to guard them, to take care of them with the same love, until they were caught in the nets, loaded into a lorry and taken to the food shops.
Apart from his love for his fish and his motorcycle, Old Man Mihai had once been in love with a bulldozer. He had met it at trade school and, as soon as he saw it (in the hangar where all the pupils went for practical courses), his heart melted for it. From that moment no one could surpass him at mechanics. He knew all the machine parts by heart, and once he even bet his teacher that he could dismantle the bulldozer down to the very last component and then put it back together again. After two weeks of labour, he won the bet. The trade-school bulldozer, formerly a heap of scrap, now ran so well that the principal sent him back into the field, into the hands of some tractor-driver. No love lasts forever.
In the army, he had flirted with a tank, but it was not the same as before. After his national service, he went back to his native village, even more taciturn than he had been before. They co-opted him into the local party organisation, but in spite of the fact that he was seen as a sound cadre, they could not get a word out of him. He would probably have borne the brunt of a lot of criticism if one fine day, out of the blue, he had not come up with the idea of the lake.
He was walking quietly by the marsh at the edge of the village and all of a sudden, before his very eyes, as if real, he had a vision of a lake full of fish. At the next party meeting, to the surprise of all, he put himself down on the list for motions:
“Comrades, this is what I’ve been thinking: that marsh at the end of the village is no use to anybody. Give it to me and I’ll make a lake out of it.”
“Excuse me, comrade,” they publicly rebuked him. “The marsh belongs to us, to the entire people. How can we give it to you?”
“But I’m not asking it for myself. I’ll make a lake out of it for the entire people.”
“Let’s say we do. How are you going to make a great big lake?”
“Give me a bulldozer and I’ll show you.”
Comrade Mihail’s idea was well received at Central Office, and so they gave him a bulldozer and diesel to run it. Old Man Mihai set to work and in a single summer he managed to excavate a lake of quite a few hectares. At first, folk laughed at him, but when they could see their faces mirrored in the lake it seemed to them as though they were witnessing a minor miracle.
The miracle was even greater when, on a working visit to the county, comrade Nicolae Ceauşescu himself insisted on officially opening the lake. A day before this great event (news of which swiftly spread to all the surrounding area), a number of men from Central Office turned up. They filled the lake with fish (nothing but carp weighing in at more than two kilos, brought from the hatcheries). They built a wharf, erected a rostrum, set up loudspeakers and microphones, planted trees around the water’s edge, and then spread out through the surrounding villages to instruct the locals.
“Comrade Mihail,” said the doctor, as he vaccinated him, “you have a lot of luck. I’d never have imagined that comrade Ceauşescu could come here. There are moments that you can experience only once in a lifetime. You should be proud of it and not spare any effort to live up to expectations.”
Old Man Mihai was dumb with amazement, and not even he could believe in such a miracle: to shake hands with comrade Ceauşescu himself.
At eight in the morning, the shore of the lake and the surrounding hills were thronged with people frenziedly chanting: Ceauşescu and the nation! The peasantry and the future!
At a quarter past nine the whirl of the presidential helicopter rotors was heard. It circled over the crowd a few times, ripping up by the roots the trees planted but a day before. The forces of law and order quickly directed the people at the front each to prop up a tree.
On alighting from the helicopter, comrade Nicolae Ceauşescu was greeted with cheers and the mayor’s wife, dressed in folk costume.
Comrade Nicolae Ceauşescu and comrade Elena Ceauşescu ascended the rostrum on the wharf, happily waving to the crowd.
There was further chanting of slogans.
Comrade Nicolae Ceauşescu produced some pieces of paper and moved toward the microphone:
Dear comrades and friends,
(Hooraaaaaaaaaaah! Hooraaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaah! Hooraaaaaaaaaaaaaaaah!)
The history of the working class struggle, of the socialist movement, of the communist party must be presented in the context of the economic and social life of the nation, in close connexion to the activity of the other revolutionary, democratic and progressive forces that have contributed to the development of society. Only in this way can we obtain a genuine, multilateral image of social life in Romania, can we understand in all its breadth the revolutionary struggle of the Romanian people for democracy, peace and social progress…
We must take into account the fact that history is forged by people, with their qualities and defects. In the process of the revolutionary struggle, of the struggle for the construction of socialism, in our country countless militants have taken a stand, militants who, at one stage or another, have played a leading role in the unfolding of events, have carried out duties of responsibility within the party leadership…
In such a conjuncture, although it represents a small step, the lake made by comrade Mihail, a leading militant in the process of revolutionary struggle, has proven to be a great success in the achievement of multilaterally developed socialism. The revolutionary strength of the people, gathered in the breast of this valiant son of the motherland, has resulted in the forging of moments of history.
The ones at the back of the crowd, near the top of the hill, elbowed each other and asked: “What did he say!?”
Due to a lack of oxygen – as the lake was over-stocked – or else overwhelmed by excitement in their turn, dead fish had began to float belly up.
There followed quarter of an hour of chanted slogans and cheering, after which comrade Nicolae Ceauşescu wanted to shake hands with comrade Mihail. On his way over to Old Man Mihai, he noticed a host of dead carp floating belly up by the wharf.
“What’s with those fish?” he asked someone in his entourage.
“They’re spontaneously displaying their joy at your working visit here.”
Old Man Mihai remembered as though it were yesterday the miracle whereby comrade Nicolae Ceauşescu himself shook his hand and said sharply:
“Guard the fish, comrade Mihail!”
Even now, if he stretched out his hand, it was as though he could feel the vigorous grip of the comrade president and the words whereby he entrusted him with such a dignified purpose in life.
“Yes, Iliuţă, daddy, you should know that I have not lived in vain,” he said, rowing to the middle of the lake.
He stopped the boat, took the shovel, and started casting bran into the lake.
The fish began to leap merrily alongside the boat.
“I’ve toiled, that I have, I’ve worn myself out for you,” he said, leaning on the oar handle. “I’ve taken care of you for years like you were my own children. Well, Iliuţă, it’s you I love the best, not for nothing have I made you king of the whole lake… I’ve toiled hard. And all from scratch. In the beginning, there was nothing hereabouts, just a marsh. I was walking along the hilltops and all of a sudden I told myself that it would be good for a lake full of fish to gleam here. I went to the Party and so it came to pass.
“They gave me a bulldozer and I parted the land from the waters. And I saw that it was good.
“I named the dry land the shore, and the gathered waters I named the lake.
“I let the seeds of the herb throng the depths and I saw that it was good.
“I went once more to the Party and they gave me a whole cistern full of fish fry and I cast it into the water: ‘Grow and multiply and yours shall be all the kingdom of the waters.’ And I saw that it was good.
“Then I told myself: ‘Let the herb bring forth seed over all the face of the water. This shall be your food.’ Those from the Party also added a trailer of bran a month.
“Then came the poachers. They enticed you with their bait, which you swallowed like fools.
“And then began my misfortune.
“Waiting and watching the whole day long, until my eyes popped out of the end of my binoculars, chasing them on the motorcycle, and cursing all those beasts covetous of fish.
“At one point I wearied and then I thought of you, Iliuţă. I went to the hatchery and chose the most handsome carp of all: you. I thought that only a fish could teach the others not to fall for the poachers’ bait like fools. Not a bit of it! It’s still all up to me. And what befell me with you! Do you remember? A year after you had secured dominion over the kingdom of the waters, they drew out the fish. They drained the water, leaving only a puddle in which all the creatures teemed, they filled the net, but you were not there. I sought you, I sought you, you were nowhere. And when I get a better look with the binoculars, I see you writhing somewhere in the middle of the lake. I stripped down to my underpants and waded up to my waist into the slime to save you. You scared me to death. I all but thought there was nothing more I could do for you. When I reached you, you had almost suffocated. I carried you in my arms – oh, how you struggled! I was all covered in slime – and I cast you into a barrel of water. A few days later, you recovered. How you rejoiced when you could gambol in the waters once more… There it is, Iliuţă. Since then, peace and tranquillity! But the fish have understood nothing. The way they let themselves get caught it’s as though they’re possessed by the devil.
“And it’s as though I won’t be able to go on much longer. One fine day, halt! And I’ll be gone. You’ll be on your own, and then let me see you. Will you still remember everything I’ve taught you? It’ll be you who will take care of the others in my stead. Have you managed to take charge of them? Do they obey you like they do me? Who knows?”
The sun had gained in strength and Old Man Mihai could now clearly discern the outlines of the poachers who had sat down to fish at the other end of the lake. He picked up his binoculars and put them to his eyes:
“Of course, we know the problem! Costăchel, bugger him! Instead of finding work, he comes here to bother my head. And not only that, he brings that swarm of children with him. You steal today, you steal tomorrow, that I can understand, you have to live, to have something to put on your plate, but never to stop! You’re not going to sit all day by the lake to steal my fish. Just you wait, I’ll teach you a lesson.”
He grasped the oars, fixing them in the oarlocks, and headed shoreward with swift movements. He leapt from the boat, opened the shed, brought out the motorcycle, mounted it, and rushed off to catch Costăchel.
As though on cue, roused by the snuffling of the motorcycle, Costăchel and his children scattered, fleeing like rabbits in different directions. Old Man Mihai espied the one carrying the bag and accelerated towards him. The child carrying the bag of fish was unfortunate enough to be wearing waders. Moreover, he had been left behind because he had ventured into the water until he was in almost to his waist. In spite of these not exactly favourable conditions, Costăchel’s boy was gaining considerable speed, worthy of a runner good enough to be sent to the Olympics in the not too distant future. Nevertheless, the distance between him and the motorcycle was shrinking rapidly, inversely proportional to the lapse of time.
The slope of the hill by the lake was gentle, the grass beaten, and Old Man Mihai was an unsurpassed master in manoeuvring the motorcycle, and so the child soon collapsed, his eyes bulging out of their sockets from running. Old Man Mihai circled him a few times on the motorcycle, and then cut the engine. With his gaze he measured up the lad sprawling on the ground, without uttering a word. Trembling with fright, the lad finally plucked up courage and lifted his eyes towards the guardian of the lake:
“Oh, I really missed you, Old Man Mihai!” he said, finding no other words to appease him.
Old Man Mihai was overcome with pity for him, but he could not betray his feelings before a poacher. Silent, he paced around the child a few times.
“I’m going to give you a photograph,” he answered.
The little poacher did not know whether he should take this answer as a sign of indulgence. He added:
“I’ll give you the fish back. And this rod, if you like… It’s made of bamboo.”
Old Man Mihai seemed to be ignoring him, to have forgotten all about him. He went up to his motorcycle and carefully inspected the wheels.
“I shit on your bamboo!” he burst out, still looking at the wheels. “Where the fuck did your dad get the money for a bamboo rod?”
“It’s not dad’s. It’s mine.”
“Where did you steal it?”
“I didn’t steal it. I swapped it for a pair of skis.”
Old Man Mihai grabbed the rod and flexed it:
“Yes, a fine rod.”
Then he looked at the hooks:
“Who the hell taught you to make such stupid knots?”
“Your dad’s an idiot. Look,” he came closer to the lad, “if you leave the end of the nylon thread sticking out, it pricks the fish’s snout and it won’t bite. Understand?”
The lad would have liked to contradict him: he had caught some three kilograms of fish with those stupid knots. He realised just in time that by saying so he would have made a blunder.
“Is that nice?” Old Man Mihai burst out once again. “Can you still give me back the fish now?”
The lad quickly emptied the fish onto the grass:
Old Man Mihai fastened his gaze upon the fish in the grass. Some were dead, others were writhing with the last of their strength.
“Can’t you see they’ve kicked the bucket? What can I do with them now?” he asked, in a grief-stricken voice.
The child too looked in pity at the heap of fish in the grass:
“They have kicked the bucket a bit,” he too opined.
Old Man Mihai leaned on his motorcycle:
“What shall I do to you now, eh?”
“Break your bones?”
The child quickly shook his head.
“Why break your bones? Is it you who’s to blame? Look, here’s what we’ll do, take your fish, take them home, and tell your father that they’re to be the last. If I catch him here again, him or any one of you, I’ll chase you even to the ends of the earth and break your bones.”
Upset, he mounted his motorcycle and left without looking back.
He put the motorcycle back in its place in the shed. Then he fetched a loaf of bread from the cabin and came and sat down on the shore of the lake. He kept a crust of bread for himself, broke the rest into small pieces, casting them into the water from time to time.
“Iliuţă, daddy, I can’t go on! There’s more and more of them, and I haven’t got the strength any more. I feel my heart bursting.”
He peacefully chewed his crust of bread, without saying anything more.
Contrary to his habit, he spent the day lazing on the shore of the lake. He did not pick up his binoculars. He no longer seemed interested in guarding the fish. Towards evening, he stripped to his underpants and swam to the middle of the lake. He came back panting, once again convinced that his strength was not what it used to be in his youth.
He shaved, changed into clean clothes, then waited for it to grow dark, still on the shore of the lake.
As the moon rose, silence fell over the expanse of the lake. From time to time, insatiable fish leapt, as though wanting to swallow the moon.
For a while Old Man Mihai went on cursing the bald coot that screeched as it flew nearby. He stretched out in the boat.
“Iliuţă, I think I’m going to have a nap. You look after the others.”
The boat rocked beneath his weight and started to drift over the water.
He closed his eyes and thought of the thousands of fish that were swimming without a care beneath him, waiting to be fed, as though out of the blue, unaware that one fine day he would no longer be capable of doing so. “Their business,” Old Man Mihai said to himself, and thought that now, in the boat, he too could float like a fish without a care.
That damned coot once again snapped the thread of his thoughts. He sat up, with the thought of cursing it. He was left dumb with fright when he glimpsed at the side of the boat the image of an aged man, with a face as gentle as that of the Good Lord. However, in spite of the fact that his beard reached as far as his waist, Old Man Mihai recognised him to be comrade Nicolae Ceauşescu. He was afraid, but he rejoiced that that lot had not shot him, as they said, in the Revolution.
“Don’t be afraid, Mihail, for I shall do you no harm. I have come to thank you for taking care of my fish. Bravo,” he said, vigorously nodding his head, “you have been a worthy son of the motherland. The working class can be proud of you. I know that you have laboured a lifetime, but you may say that you have not lived in vain. I too laboured and others belaboured me, but I never gave up, not even for a moment. What I liked about you was that you did a thorough job. And then, you never betrayed the cause; you even loved your work. That’s why I have come to thank you, to shake your hand,” he shook his hand, but Old Man Mihai felt only the memory of the handshake Nicolae Ceauşescu had given him at the inauguration of the lake, “and to tell you that the time has come, that you too deserve a rest. Come with me,” he urged, rising.
Old Man Mihai leapt over the side of the boat and began to walk on the water. After a few paces, his heart swelled, like the bladder of a fish that wants to rise to the surface, and Old Man Mihai began to ascend, treading in the footsteps of comrade God.