On still nights she heard the breathing of her mother beside her and the dogs lying by the door, but on this night she awoke to the sky breathing through the high leafy branches. She lay in bed seeing the wind travelling across the wide plain to the hills and swaying the dark trees around her home, and she pulled the blankets tighter and fell asleep thinking of gathering wood the next day, the dead fallen branches on the forest floor.
When she woke again it was silent. The objects in the room were becoming themselves once more and she understood that the sky was both clear and still. Now in the growing light of the spring sometimes there was no need on awakening to fumble for matches and candle. She rose and pulled her clothes around herself while her mother still dreamt. She was the youngest child, a latecomer, and this winter her mother had shown the signs of age. The bone tiredness. The need to sleep. And now the biting in her gut. As she slipped her feet into her shoes the tail of the young dog lifted and fell to the floor several times. The rest of the dog could not yet move.
She broke sticks and when they were brightly crackling in the mouth of the stove she clanked the stovedoor shut and put the pot of water on to warm.
She stepped over the dogs and they stirred, first the lean young dog, and then the older one, its mother, with more difficulty. She pulled the door, creaking, and it was as she expected—a sky blue already in a calm morning. She saw through the clearing to the road and the steeple and houses of the town below, and the lazing line of the river that drew a border between the foothills and the plain stretching far eastwards on the other side.
The wounded-animal screech of the train whistle sounded clearly from the direction of the town. The trains were irregular as a consequence of the war. It sounded loudest to her at night and in the early morning, and sometimes the drift of the wind made it louder still. She did not think the war would come any closer.
The rail line ran alongside the river. She could not see the tracks, as the line was much narrower than the river and hidden in the trees, but she could follow the smoke from the engine when the trains pulled away, carrying soldiers, or guns, or sacks of maize. They would go upstream along the river and cross the bridge, far out of sight, to the north. Then the trains turned east, towards the war.
There was a barracks on the road by the station. That was where her lover slept. She thought of his white legs covered with the bites of fleas from sleeping in the dirty barracks but hoped he would sleep safely there by the river and the train tracks until the fighting ended and their life began.
Tomorrow morning, early, he would come to speak to her mother. The mother had never seen him. But her sisters from the town had no doubt shared information which belonged to everybody there who did not block their eyes and ears. And she was certain that her mother could know that she had lain with a man from watching how she moved. That she did not need to be told was clear from her mother’s alternating bursts of anger and tenderness. But tomorrow the matter would be spoken of and put right.
She walked a distance into the wood to relieve herself. Then she went to the shed and washed from the bucket, using the lumpy brown soap. She did not wash herself entirely. She washed herself as she could. She liked the water on her skin, though it was cold water. She liked to wash and would have preferred to wash completely, lazily, in a tub, with scents. But in the morning she liked cold water on her face, and would have chosen that even if a big house in the city were hers. Even were she taken by a man to a fine house, she would still have cold water for her face in the morning. But she had chosen a man with nothing. She would be taking him. Because the land in the forest and the cow were hers. Because her brother was dead in the war and her sisters were married to men with good flat green land that stretched out towards the river below.
She rinsed the dust and the spider and its web from the milking pail and carried it to the byre. The smell of hay and fresh dung. She led the cow, with its heavy delicate full-udder walk, and tethered it at the milking place. The cow crunched hay and she rinsed the teats. Then the first straight lines of milk ringing off the bottom of the bucket, her strong hands pulling the milk from the placid beast, her head pressed to its warm hide. While she milked the smell of the cow’s hide came to her in waves, as if she had never smelled it before. It was not a bad smell but there was something strong and new in it. And for a moment even milking a cow seemed something strange and she wondered why she should think of it that way, a thing she did every day. It was because of Lent perhaps, the foods she could not eat, the milk that she could not drink. The milk was saved and on Easter morning they would return from the midnight service in the town, carrying candles through the streets with the townspeople, and at her sister’s house they would eat the fresh white curd cheese with honey.
When the flow slackened she massaged high up in the udders to bring the milk down. She milked this last part and it was done.
She carried the bucket outside, now a good weight on her arm, and covered it with a cloth and put it at a height where the dogs could not drink.
She was a short way down the track to the town, the bucket of milk from morning and the bucket from the night before on each arm, when she heard the whistle and shunt of the departing locomotive. She thought of the train station and the barracks beside it where he slept and his thin white legs, spotted red from fleabites, and she smiled. She smiled when she caught herself thinking like a wife, thinking how she would cure such trouble for him when he came to live in her house, when he was no longer a soldier living in the filthy barracks. They were not the worst, those fleas that bit only the lower legs. They were not the fleas that lived on people, but fleas of animals that had got into bedding or clothing. They were never far, such fleas. Blankets and clothes had to be boiled and beaten out, and winter bedding stored carefully away. That was how it was done. It was a disorderly home where fleas multiplied in the bedding.
He rolls over and hitches his trousers up and ties them. She smiles at the whiteness of the tops of his insect-bitten legs then looks above at the clean air passing through the high leaves.
It was wrong, what we did, he says.
She is disappointed to hear him speak like this, now that it is done, the fear of other people, or God, in his voice. The thing that made him want to lie with her in the forest, though they know it is forbidden, is something true, and very simple, and they felt it at the same moment. She does not want it spoiled with fearful words. It felt right as it happened, and the good feeling of him stays with her now that they have done it. It is something that they have been waiting for and it has come on the appointed day. That is all. That was what it meant. That this is the day it was to happen. She wants to explain to him that there is a time for everything. There is a time for being born and one for dying. There is a time for planting and a time for reaping. There is a time for love also, though it may be short. The bloom is brief and then it passes on to something else, to the time for marriage, perhaps. There is even a time for war. This is evident now. But when the time of peace comes he will return. There was the land and they will manage it better together than apart. In this way, each moment will ripen and pass and all the things that people do will be accomplished in their turn, and sorrow will be tolerable.
We will make it right, she says. If from this moment on if we do everything right, then it will be right.
We shouldn’t do it again, he says, his conscience easing, until we are married.
She nods, knowing that soon he will wish to lie with her again. Because now it is unstoppable. And she knows that she will let him, even though if he is sent to the war and dies the consequences will be hers alone.
The track through the woods was not very steep. It had been wide enough for a cart but since her father had died there was no more the cart trundling down with loads of timber towards the village, or returning with the hay for which it had been exchanged, and brambles and seedlings of oak and beech were becoming established. They had even sold the horse. There would be a horse and cart again, though, when the time came, and her husband would bring wood down to the town. She saw a cluster of mushrooms by the path, the good brown meaty ones that had the taste of the woods in them, and enough that some could be dried and stored. She noted the place in order to gather them on her return.
The path levelled out and the forest ended and there were supple young trees by the roadside and the first houses and fences, and the first man with a cart who hailed her, and dogs at gates, barking. And then the long straight road and bigger houses, and then she was on a paved street. She passed the church, where she would pray after she had left the milk.
Something strange was happening in front of the railway station, and the townspeople had come out to stare. She sought him among the dozen-or-so soldiers but his soldier’s face showed nothing and he refused to look at her. The officer was giving orders and he was obeying. Some thirty or forty men were lined up against the wall of the station in the thin sunshine. They were being counted by one soldier while another shouted out their names and made marks in a register. They were of different ages and their clothes were dirty and they were tired and afraid and were underfed. She looked at one of the men, who had somehow kept his glasses, a pair of round lenses before his scared eyes, and for this mark of individuality he had retained she pitied him more than the others. He must have been from a town. Perhaps he had been a rich man, or a teacher. Perhaps he had a wife. Perhaps he had had a big shop in the capital. These were the Jews she had heard of. They had probably been on the train, crowded together in wagons for a very long time. Perhaps they would board the train to cross the country again, and disembark in another country town by a river where strangers would stand in the street and stare at them.
The officer barked a harsh order and the soldiers moved in to herd the prisoners away from the station. Some of the townspeople followed the procession down the street.
She saw her lover turn his back. She heard the heavy boots of the soldiers on the road.
The remaining townspeople began to drift away, talking quietly, except for a group of young men who lingered. One of them had said something and the others were laughing loudly, in the nervous doglike way of young men, inflamed at their own noise.
Across the road, her sister’s husband leaned against the doorway of his shop. He nodded to her and flicked his cigarette end away and stood up straight. The shopkeeper’s freshly shaved jowls had the womanish blush of a man who lived indoors, by the stove. She picked up the buckets which she had set down on the road and walked towards the shop.
Who were they? she asked, approaching the doorway, the weight of the buckets new on her arms again.
Jidani, he replied, using the word they had that expressed a sentiment about that people.
They entered the shop. It sold dry goods and served food and drink to those who kept the fast and to those who did not. Her sister was behind the counter, leaning against it. She had grown stout and ruddy in her time in the town. A man in a railway company uniform, the signalman, sat at a low table at the wall, his hand curled around a cup of dark wine. The room was badly lit but hot from the stove. There was an unpleasant smell of cooking, of onions and other things that had been frying. She carried the pails through the shop and set them down in the cool yard behind the building.
She returned to the muggy room. The signalman was speaking in a low voice
They send them east. Past the Prut, past the Dneister, I believe. We had two trains stop here last week, to take on water. The stink from the wagons!
The Steppes, said the shopkeeper, straightening up as though quoting a schoolbook poem, the Steppes extend forever east.
He took a cigarette from the packet and tapped it on the counter. Extend forever, he continued. Room enough for all the jidani, all the Gypsies. The jidani can cheat the tigani, and the tigani can steal it back.
The signalman shook his head.
The stink from the wagons. You wouldn’t believe.
But these ones, she said. In our town. Where are they taking them?
The signalman looked at his wine. Wood crackled in the stove. The shopkeeper, leaning on the counter, placed the much-considered cigarette in his mouth and struck a match. His big face glowed as he lit. Smoke curled from his lips.
To work, he said. For us, for a change.
Much you know of work, said his wife, occupied at the stove. Speaking of, said the signalman, rising and draining his glass. Health, said the shopkeeper.
Health, said the signalman. The door became a bright rectangle of light then closed after him.
She felt unwell with the smoke and heat and the smell of food and it was worse when her sister slid the plate onto the table before her. The mound of dull yellow cornmeal was covered with fried onions and garlic, and even in the dimness it glistened.
I’m not hungry. You ate already?
I wanted to pray before.
Her sister looked at her, and at the food, steaming. You’ve got very holy. Eat it now, since it’s hot.
It disgusted her but she ate, forcing each mouthful.
She had heard of the arrogance of the Jews. But there was no arrogance left in the tired and dirty prisoners she had seen. It was Lent and they were starved and she was eating food she did not want. Her lover the soldier had told her Codreanu and the Guard would uproot the corruption of the jidani and the communists. He described how Codreanu had come to his village. He had never seen so fine a man. Mounted on a white horse, in front of the church, a man of the land and the woods, the people gathered around him. This he told her, about Codreanu, one time in the forest after they had lain together. It had been beautiful to hear, because it was him telling it to her, and the mention of the church and the white horse, as they lay beneath the swaying branches as man and wife.
Finally it disgusted her too much. The smells. And her sister, and her ugly shopkeeper-husband, turning the pages of a paper spread on the counter. The cloying warmth from the stove made her want the clean air outside. Her face was hot. She pushed the plate away.
You ate nothing. Can’t.
Her sister looked at her hard and saw. She picked up the plate. Go pray then.
The cool air of the street was better. There was no sign of the earlier commotion. The food was curdling in her belly as she carried the empty buckets back up the main street. Her nausea tinged everything, even the thought of her love, and when she stopped before the church and looked at the icon of Christ crucified naked on the cross and bleeding from the chest and hands and feet she had to look away and did not go in, and instead hurried on past the houses that became fewer and the dogs barking at her from the gateways. She was climbing the forest path again, fast, breathing hard. She was glad she was alone.
She froze. The crows scattered, patterning the sky between the branches with their confusion. The first shots were cracking dry sticks snapping in a small room, then many gunshots ran together. Then the shots were individual events again. The guns became tired of firing. A final report echoed across the hills.
She breathed through her open mouth, looking at the tops of the trees. The crows soon began to settle in the branches again. She hurried on, upwards. At the place where the mushrooms grew she put the buckets down and leaned against a tree and emptied her stomach.
When she reached the house the door was open but she did not see her mother. She set the buckets down and went inside. The woman was lying on the bed under blankets. Her eyes were squeezed closed as though light would kill her.
Mama, did you hear? Did you hear it in the woods? It’s biting me, said the mother. Give me the tea.
A pot on the side of the stove contained an infusion of herbs. She poured it into a cup and brought it to the woman’s lips. She drank, then sank back down in the bed.
She sat with the silent still woman for a long time in the darkened room. Soon, she thought, I will be completely alone in this place, with the animals. The house had been full of people when she was a girl, the youngest. The world was becoming unrecognisable. She sat for far too long, thinking this kind of thought, about being deserted by those she loved. The fire in the stove had gone out and she considered lighting it, or sweeping the floor. There were things to do and it was daylight. Her mother stirred, opened her eyes, turned her head to her daughter. It could not be so bad now, if she had opened her eyes.
Mama. Tomorrow he will come to speak to you. In the morning.
The woman was still, watching her. Perhaps she no longer cared about such things.
My poor child, said the mother. You don’t have to. There are ways to stop it. This she did not want to hear. She thought of things to do. It was time to do
things, to get out of the dark room smelling of sickness.
Tomorrow he will come to speak to you, she said. She stood up and went outside.
He is coming, she thought, waking in the night to the dogs scratching the door, whining. But it was too soon for him to show. Moonlight through the window and pale objects. She looked at her mother sleeping, rose and pulled her long coat around her and unlatched the door. The dogs slipped out ahead of her, claws clattering on the wooden porch. She felt the cold air.
She stepped outside and saw and it froze her. The dogs too held back, silent. The man was naked beneath the milky moon in the courtyard.
He was trembling. She had never seen a man so naked, not even Jesus on the cross.
The bones spoke through his starved flesh. He looked at her, shivering, his armbones hanging so his hands shielded his crotch, then looked away. The dirt of the earth streaked his body and the black blood mixed with it from the wound on his shoulder.
When she could recognize what she saw she unfroze and walked towards the man and took her coat and placed it around his shivering shoulders. The dogs followed her at a small distance, tails tucked between their legs. She guided him away from the house, across the yard towards the byre. She took him slowly. She unlatched the wooden slat and opened the byre door. The cow stirred in the hay. The dogs held back.
Lie down here where it is soft, she said.
He folded his knees and with her help lay upon a pile of hay. He put his head down upon the hay.
She recrossed the yard. In the room, her mother slept. She took the matches and lamp and a blanket and went again to the byre. She lit the lamp. The cow was standing now, watching her with big long-lashed patient eyes.
She removed the cloth covering the bucket and dipped the wooden bowl into the milk. She carried the milk while the lamp trembled the shadow of the cow and the woman on the walls of the byre and then kneeled in the hay and cupped her hand behind the man’s head to raise it and offered him the shallow bowl. His head was young and ancient and his eyes which had been closing now opened a little, heavy, and he sipped the milk. He drew a breath and then his lips took the milk again, drinking it down to the end of the bowl, thirstily. His let his head down upon the hay again, his eyes closing. He breathed twice sharply as though trying to yawn. Then he sighed, deeply, and the borrowed breath passed from his tortured flesh.
She looked at him, the empty bowl in her hand, feeling the relief. She pulled the blanket over the man’s face.
Under the watchful eyes of the cow she covered the milk. She extinguished the lamp and latched the byre. She crossed the yard. The dogs slipped silently into the house and she closed the door. She lay down in her bed to wait.
He was coming up the track. Taking far too long. She was standing in the sunlight while her mother lay in the house, unable to rise. Some things went too fast, other times they went too slow. She watched him walking.
When he came she would tell him about the life that had ended and say nothing about the life beginning. He would know nothing about that. It concerned her alone.
She had seen a man who had risen from the dirt his killers had piled on his body, and she had given him milk to drink, and he had lain down before her and died. There was nothing else to know.
She lost sight of him in the trees. In several minutes he would reach the clearing, his legs tired from the ascent. His white legs with the red marks from the fleas from the dirty barracks, which she had pitied him for. And she would tell him.
He would say, Is this a dream you had? And she would say, No, this is not a dream. This is the man you did not kill properly, or even bury properly, and she would lead him to the byre and pull back the blanket and show his unbelieving eyes the body of the dead Jew.