Mica was like no one else. She was a beautiful, impish little girl with luminous eyes. In the few grainy sepia family photographs that have survived from the 1930s, those little-girl eyes shine so brightly that she becomes the focal point of every photograph, wherever she might be. I too once had lustrous eyes like hers.
“She was such a bad one that none of us knew who it was she took after!” my sister says Aunt Marta is supposed to have said.
Shocked to hear such a thing said about Mica, I have always retorted:
“Really? Is that what she said?” And I add a question to which I never received a satisfactory answer: “Why? What did she do?”
Lithe and slender, on the tall side, with a sharp, stinging tongue, she whipped up a whirlwind wherever she went. If I were to go by the stories I have heard about her as a girl and a young woman, then it would seem to me that Mother’s youth lasted a long, long time; an eternity. In reality, Mica married at the age of twenty, and so the time she had at her disposal to be happy, the period during which all the miracles took place, was in reality but the blink of an eyelid. She liked to read and her folk let her go to school for seven years. In the whole village, only four children from her class finished seven years of schooling, and she was the brightest. At the end of each year, she was crowned with a wreath, which the teacher wove with his own hands, from periwinkle and flowering fleabane. But instead of sending her to lyceum, as they had done with Nelu, whom from an early age they sent to an army school in Bucharest, so that he went on to study at military lyceum and aviation college at the state’s expense, her they sent to the Sisters of the Mother of God in Cluj, which was the latest fashion for girls from the village. They sent her not to lyceum, not to a school with textbooks, but to a practical college for well-off Transylvanian Graeco-Catholic peasant girls, where they learned how to keep house, to cook and launder, to sew and embroider, to make pickles, and to treat diarrhoea in newborn babes using herbal tea. There’s no doubt that she could have learned from her mother how to keep house, but the girls who worked with the nuns came back almost ladies, they knew how to lay a table the same as in noble households, with napkins folded in the shape of a slipper or a rose, whereas in Cutca folk hadn’t yet heard of napkins.
She was the fourth and last child of a proud family of middling peasants. As a young girl, not even the dry winters could quench her jollity. And there is no landscape gloomier than Cutca between October and April. During the snowless winters, the flayed horizon exposes its melancholy and hopelessness to the sky. Under that greyish blue sky, like a crust of damp ash, the blunted, barren hills bare the wounds of their erosion. You don’t know which is more dismal: the drab sky or the tettered earth into which seeps all the colour of the firmament. During a dry frost, there is nothing but desolate hills as far as the eye can see. Here is the Vale of Tears and memory. From November to April, the world is grey and forlorn. This landscape is redeemed only if it snows. With their little houses and muddy yards teeming with poultry, the villages wallow in the mire and the frozen clod of the furrows. But in April, when the grass begins to sprout, the world comes to life and the people with it. The hills are then powdered with a greenish dust, the fields become verdant, and liquid chlorophyll pervades the air. In May, a phosphorescent green mist softens the light with infinite tenderness, and the harshness of people’s hearts is assuaged by the madcap promises that fill the world. For an instant, people are filled with goodness, yearning for some unnamed salvation. Their blood throbs in them euphorically, like the chlorophyll in the leaves, and Cutca folk look at the earth and the sky, then at the fields of wheat and maize, their eyes moist with tenderness. “Look how much it has grown after last night’s rain!” they say, pointing at a stalk of maize or an onion shoot, their voices softened with sweetness, as if they were speaking of a suckling babe.
Mària could invent games for herself in all weathers. When she was a child, she liked to go to school, which she found very entertaining. “I like to educate myself,” she told me in the 1990s, when I chanced to be at home and found her listening to a cultural broadcast on the radio. “Do you know how interesting it is?” she asked me, her eyes glinting with satisfaction. When she was little, she and her siblings had to share a single pair of boots, and she used to wait impatiently for her turn to come every third day, so that she could go to school. She did the others’ homework for them, Alesandru’s and Marta’s, and if either of them couldn’t be bothered to go to school, Mària would straight away offer to don the boots, whose one size fit all, and go in their stead. Marta was more easily persuaded: “If I gave her my portion of noodles and walnut or if I watered the animals,” Mammy used to tell me, her eyes enlivened by the memory, “she used to let me go instead of her.” And with a glance cast far away, toward a past I would never reach, she added:
“That was in winter, of course, because in autumn and spring all three of us used to go. Nelu was in Bucharest, at the army school. From March onward, as soon as the earth dried and we could walk barefoot, all three of us used to go. Ah! I remember one year I went to school in the morning. It was in March, maybe the beginning of April. Where the Culture Club is now, there used to be a school. And bad weather came. In an hour the snow was as deep as the breadth of your palm. And Alesandru came to fetch me and carried me home piggyback, because I couldn’t walk barefoot through the snow. That was what it was like back then,” said Mica, gloomily.
And then she added, with a severe voice, so that I would deign to take note:
“We all used to go barefoot back then, even Vistian the Kulak’s son. I remember how we used hop and skip along the path by Uncle Pojar’s house at the top of the village, and how I thought it sounded hollow.” She paused, and then added: “I always used to win first prize and the teacher wove me a wreath.”
She looks at me searchingly.
Father was a big man. Which is to say, he was tall and hale. I don’t remember the colour of his eyes. A grainy sepia photograph shows him with the family: he is with his wife, Ana, his two sisters-in-law from Șomcuta, Aunt Todora and another aunt, and three of the four children they had. In the photograph, they are all rigid and elegant – that elegance possessed by Transylvanian peasants before the Second World War – looking gravely into the camera. He is the sternest and most serious of them all, majestic in his white collarless shirt and frieze suit. He is balding. Mica always used to tell us that Father had wavy hair, which he passed on to my sister and brother, and he wore a short moustache under his prominent nose. He is the only one in the photograph whose head is bare. The women are wearing headscarves, and his son, Ion, a funny felt hat. Tica is in the centre of the photograph, standing up. Ion and Mària, his children, are seated in front of him, on high-backed chairs, and their heads, to my great disappointment, completely conceal his hands. I would have liked to see his hands.
Given how proudly he is standing between the four women, one of whom is his daughter, Marta, you would never guess that Indrei had a wooden leg. I remember the story of his wooden leg very well: he was employed at court, looking after the Grof’s horses. One day, the overseer shot him in the leg with a hunting rifle because he hadn’t curried the horses well enough. A cartridge full of pellets. An incident from the Transylvania of lingering Hungarian feudalism. An incident from 1906. He was twenty-three at the time. He had been born in 1883. His kinsmen, poor folk from the village of Cutca, put him in a cart and took him to the hospital in Cluj, but the long journey and the jolting made his leg turn gangrenous. He spent six months in hospital, and then the doctors amputated his leg.
This didn’t stop him from marrying the woman of his choice: Ana, of the Pascu family from Șomcuta. She was a diminutive, hardworking woman, the mother of two stillborn babies, and a war widow to boot. Her misfortunes had hardened her even features and lent her a steely, dignified air, accentuated by her dark clothing. Asked by a relative of hers why she had married Indrei, also known as Paplei, from Cutca, and whether she hadn’t seen that he was poor and one-legged, Ana had looked the impudent man straight in the eye and said:
“He lured me into it!”
When they were betrothed, in 1918, he was an autumnal swain of thirty-five, and she was twenty-eight. They had four children together, Alesandru, Marta, Ion and Mària, all of them handsome, having inherited his tall stature and habit of looking a person straight in the eye. He sold his parents’ house near the bank of the Somes River and bought a plot for a large house on the main street, over the road from the new orphanage run by the Sisters of the Mother of God. From the money he earned as a carter and farmer he built up a wealthy homestead for himself. Indrei became a gazdoi, which is to say, a middling peasant who had made his land prosper: he build a big house with a porch, he had a large farmyard, with a well, a haystack and barns for the horses and cattle, and in the long orchard of plum and apricot trees behind the summer kitchen he kept beehives. He had so many beehives that his children used to eat honey with a wooden spoon straight from the wooden bread trough in which Tica wrung out the honeycombs.
“Nevertheless, it must have been hard for him!” Mica would exclaim from time to time, remembering how he, a man with one leg, had to plough the land, to reap and sow, and to provide for a house full of children.
He continued to buy land until the period of inflation after the Second World War, when, for the place at Patru Rude, a paradise with a murmuring, marshy pond and spring orchids, whose memory fills my soul with sweetness, he paid a sackful of money. In the attic, inside a wooden beam, Indrei and Ana stashed their gold pieces, but they all came to nought, because they had to surrender them when the national currency was reformed.
In a Graeco-Catholic village, immediately after the First World War, Tica brought a novelty from Cluj, where he used to go with his horse and cart: the religion of the Jehovah’s Witnesses. He was the first Jehovah’s Witness in his village. In time and with the spirit of gentleness he converted others, until almost all the villagers in Cutca became Witnesses. Afterwards, following his example, others brought other new-fangled protestant sects and the village filled with Baptists, Seventh Day Adventists and Pentecostalists. Whatever it had become, Cutca could no longer be considered a Graeco-Catholic or Orthodox village. But Tica never managed to convert his youngest daughter, Mària, also known as Mica. Nobody could sway her, neither Tica nor her husband, Agustin, who went over to the Baptists in 1954, before he fathered me.
Translated by Alistair Ian Blyth
“The originality of her vision is beyond doubt and appears from multiple viewpoints. In one important respect, At Home on the Plain of Armageddeon is a social novel, a complex book.”
“Marta Petreu has access to the ultimate truth of the confession, which, as they say, is written within the self. At Home, on the Plain of Armageddon is a major achievement for Marta Petreu and for contemporary Romanian prose.”