In the woods, traces of snow are barely visible on the ground, but it’s more slippery than in the orchard. You would think the sun is setting given how dark the sky is by the time they reach the three hornbeams that Berila and the forester marked the day before. They are tall and thicker than a leg. They surely cost Berila more than they’re worth. Two bushels of wheat and a pail of plum brandy: that’s how much the rascally forester asked for the receipt.
“You could have chopped it down in your mother’s woods and still got it cheaper,” puffs Trencu.
Berila doesn’t think he has paid over the odds.
“A metre of hornbeam is really dear if you buy it and get a receipt signed and stamped by the forester. And besides the hornbeam, they toss a load of branches in the cart.”
“Come on, Berila, let’s fell them before sunset and tomorrow you’ll trim them and cart them home. And tomorrow’s Sunday, damn it all...”
Berila doesn’t care: so what if it’s Sunday? We still eat on a Sunday, don’t we? I don’t know what goes on in that big fat boar’s head of his, Sunday, says Trencu, it’ll be woe to us in our sinful old age, Berila, folk have turned bad and the world’s gone mad, brother slaying brother and parents at odds with their children and that’s all it takes for Berila to start on about his son Aurel, who no sooner returns from prison than he’s away again or gets sent back to prison, which is what folk say, that they’re a family of gaolbirds and brawlers, and then there was the brawl a week ago when Trencu was in his cups, with that bloke who folk say is his son-in-law and they don’t know which of his girls he’s shacked up with, whether it’s with Doina or Lenţica, at least they thought Lenţica was married, and there are quite a few folk who say he’s living with them both, that he’s shacked up with the two of them there in Trencu’s farmyard, the whole world’s gone mad and that’s why things are all topsy-turvy, and well might you say, Costache, and get a move on, damn it, let’s fell them and tomorrow you’ll do well to come by yourself to lop and trim them, because I’ll be at work, at the Town Council. What, on a Sunday Yes, on a Sunday. Don’t we eat on a Sunday? Work is work.
Don’t even think about how he’s supposed to come and drag them out of this slippery gulley without two stout oxen, Costache. You can count on your fingers how many have got oxen in Frasineni and how many will lend him their oxen so that he can kill them out here in the woods, on the slopes and in the gullies, on this slippery bank, and don’t think that he wouldn’t swear to you by his mother and his father for the sake of these three hornbeams, and as I told you, Trencu, I’ve heard tell that the world has gone mad and folks have turned bad and now people don’t help each other any more… What’s that you say? The blizzard’s blowing in my ears again and I can’t hear you… The oxen from the collective farm, Berila, all you have to do is beg on your bended knees and promise them everything in return until they call you to unload sacks of fertiliser and the chairman of the collective farm still won’t let you take oxen from the stalls in weather like this, because that’s the pair of oxen he uses to cart his maize home and firewood from the forest and whatever else he needs and he’s not stupid to give them to somebody else so that he can kill them in some gulley in the woods, Costache, you wouldn’t believe how much store he sets by that pair of oxen. He’d sooner give you a tractor. He’d give you a tractor straightaway, because right now all the tractors are being repaired, ha, ha, ha… That’s not right, Nelu, some of them are still running. They don’t leave themselves without a tractor and Nelu, maybe it’s running, but what will you do for diesel to get it started. And if you wangle a canister of diesel, maybe they’ll let you have it, who knows… Lay off it, Costache, fell it and trim it and we’ll see, by the time summer comes you’ll find some way of getting it out of the woods.
Now they’re labouring with their axes at the roots of one of them, making haste because of the frost and the twilight that’s quickly closing in. It’s the thickest of the three hornbeams, thick enough to put your arms around it and clasp your hands by the wrist. From this one alone Berila will be able to make enough planks for more than half a new stable. You can see right well enough that Berila struck a good bargain, Trencu finally admits to himself. He wasn’t throwing away those bushels of wheat and the plum brandy. He’s canny and thrifty is that boar of a Berila, he doesn’t let a single thing slip through his fingers, otherwise he wouldn’t have put so much flesh on himself, a great big corpse, food for the worms, Berila-Berila, greedy and sinful, you’ve amassed to overflowing, sheep and stables and barrels of plum brandy and sacks of wheat and maize and all the money you must have stashed away in your mattress… The axe heads clash in the frozen trunk scattering sparks. They chip at the tree’s innards as if they were flint, they rest in turns, they are soaked in sweat, and finally they hollow out a deep bite mark at the root of the hornbeam and the slobbering trickle of sap freezes instantly.
Without a chainsaw we’ve done our backs in, Costache, you didn’t think of bringing a canteen of plum brandy with you into the woods for two old farts like us, to get our blood pumping, to which Berila blinks rapidly, plum brandy, a canteen or a bottle, it never entered his head and he quickly changes the subject, about how he borrowed a chainsaw from somebody down in the valley, but nobody he asked up on the hill or down in the valley could spare a litre of diesel, he asked at about a dozen houses, the ones who have got scooters or small cars, and it’s like you said, Nelu, the world’s got more miserly, people have turned bad, and they asked what do I want a chainsaw for if it’s just three hornbeams… The Devil take it, it doesn’t want to topple, Nelu, give it a push! The Devil take it! Push it over the edge! Push it! Push it!
The hornbeam slowly leans, it gives a long sinister creak in the frozen red air of sunset and still it won’t topple. They walk around it looking it up and down until they realise that its branches have got caught in the branches of the trees around it. It will take some effort before it crashes down into the gulley. It’s left hanging there, as if it had wanted to fall and then changed its mind midway. Its brethren have caught it by the hair, Costache, not even the crows and magpies will get it out… All they can do is leave it like that and set about felling the others, taking care to cut them in a direction where they can fall freely, so that they won’t get in the same mess again.
They are descending into the gulley to another hornbeam when all of a sudden an icy blast starts blowing, like a deep sigh, as if from the gloomy innards of the sky, spitting a hail of icy needles down on the woods, shaking the tree trunks and twisting them and bowing them to the ground. The gusts free the crown of the chopped hornbeam. The trunk rocks and shudders and seems about to go on its way to the bottom of the gulley, while Trencu and Berila walk around it in a daze with their eyes fixed on the sky. There’s no way of guessing which way the blizzard will push it, the blizzard that’s consuming the two of them in its icy guts. Trencu is limping and can’t feel his legs, the whistling wind is gouging and hacking his old flesh. He stumbles and slides down into the valley on his back and the trunk of the hornbeam catches him as it topples, across his chest and belly.
“Costache, I’m dying, Costache! Lord God, I’m dying!”
These are the last words Berila hears from his mouth. His voice is gone. He closes and opens his eyes, his gaze is a lament, he groans softly as Berila curses and swears, trying to budge the tree trunk. He would need two pairs of arms, if not four. The trunk was cast down into the gully ten metres from the spot where it was felled and Trencu is caught under it near the base where it was cut. The thickness of the trunk pins him down and crushes his back and chest and the whole weight of the world and the whole punishment of the heavens weigh down on him and break him in two. Leave me be, his eyes say, as Berila is about to drag him by the armpits. My time has come, Costache. Costache covers him with his padded jacket, as if worried he might get cold, and he moves away, looking behind him and saying that he is going to the village to get help.
A sparse snow is now falling in the dark, with large flakes, like peace and redemption cooling his face and keeping watch over his embrace with the trunk of the hornbeam, rising and falling in the fathomless night of the relief and liberation that he can at last see and hear, but the words cannot issue from his lips. He has shed all the seed in him beneath the hornbeam and now he has fallen silent and no matter how much he would like to speak, to whom could he tell his tale now? His head twists around and his eyes freeze. Beneath him is spreading a dark puddle, a thin mist is rising from the loose snow. The forest is crushing him. Something rustles in the dark and comes nearer, maybe Berila has come back with some men to lift the forest from on top of him, and it comes closer still, a dull, hot rustle, coming from far beyond the troubled bubble of his life, a puddle of blood that ceaselessly spreads and surrounds him.
Finally he can see it. It is next to his head. A boar, an old boar, as big as a heifer and scrawny, nothing but skin and broad bones. A spiny apparition, with the face of Berila, its eyes and tusks gleaming in its icy breath, small daggers turned back above the snout with its tufts of hair stiff with frozen slobber. It roots in the snow and its snout breaks the crust of frozen leaves and it mournfully sniffs the puddle of steaming innards. It grunts softly, a spell to counter evil, exhaling a heavy stench, and it twitches its snout, coming closer and closer to Trencu’s chest.
Scattered beneath the hornbeam his innards flinch and he is cold, Berila, you’re back? His words cause flight and the syncopated trampling and grunting recede. Run, Berila, go eat snow, greedy sinner. You’ve killed me. The snow quickly covers the trunk and him, leaving only his face bare, a glassy mask of ice and blood.
Translated by Alistair Ian Blyth