The factory across the river blows third shift over. When she opens her eyes it’s a quarter to five. She shifts slowly and props herself up on her good side and looks at the small clock ticking loudly on the nightstand beside her bed, next to the icon of Jesus offering mercy. It says five-thirty. Clack-clack-clack, the second hand sounds like an axe splitting wood, and she strains to look through the window at the dark yard now peppered with shadows of proud hens announcing the arrival of their eggs.
The room is cold. The wind blows hard against the windows and the glass makes loud, cracking noises like old redwoods bending in a gale. She reaches for her glasses and tries to push up a little higher against the headboard.
Will I make the fire, ma?
Be a good boy, she says.
And the tea?
And the tea, she says. Like your father, and crosses herself. Make it in the metal mug. Hot. Steaming so.
Ma, it’ll take the enamel off your teeth. The doctor said…
Be a good boy.
Will I cut some bacon?
Not today. I’m not hungry.
Ma, if you don’t eat first thing…
Not today, she says again and pats down her permed, gray hair on the side. And then she remembers in a controlled panic:
The parastas for your father is this afternoon.
The wind reminds her with a quick, heavy gust that it’s late autumn and the rainy season is making threats against the outdoor wake.
Will you split some wood later? Nicoletta is bringing stuffed cabbage leaves and sausage. I made mushrooms and garlic and a pot of borscht and head cheese. Someone is bringing wine. Dimi? Did you hear about the wood?
She lifts up on her elbow to focus instead on a grinning, naked toddler sitting in a wooden tub in front of the bed, in hot water among soaking laundry.
Jesus, she says. She flings her head toward the window and yells:
Come get your drawers out of the tub, man. They’ve been soaking all day.
She can’t see him, just his pitchfork rising and lowering behind the fence; disheveled little piles of hay being thrown into the barn.
You hear me? She bangs with her fist on the wall, beneath the window. Come and get your pants, deaf old fool! Dimi, get out of that dirty water, boy.
She looks at the clock again and realizes that she’s set it forty-five minutes ahead.
She’s always done that.
Go down and get your father, she says. Go before he drinks his entire paycheck down there, the bum…Stop fidgeting and go already, for Chrissakes. Dimi!
He finds him face down in the ditch outside the saloon. He goes to move him and the drunk pushes with his left arm at the air.
Da, let’s go.
The drunk swats blindly at the air again.
How much money you lose at the backgammon board, da?
The drunk shakes his head and says: Go on…
What’d they take you for in there?
He reaches underneath and flips his father; steadies him on his forearms. And then he hoists the drunk onto his sinewy back amid slurred protests.
Let’s go, da. You’re done here.
When he gets to the mayor’s house, he puts down the drunk to rest a bit. He wipes his forehead with his arm.
Don’t take the Lord’s name in vain, slurs his father
The half-starved boy looks down the muddy road, toward the valley where peasants have gathered hay into rolled stacks and the earth looks pockmarked from overplanting.
It’s not easy to live altogether in the spirit while you’re not fully grown and lobotomized by the church, da.
But the drunk doesn’t hear him. He’s passed out again and snores with a horrendous impunity.
From the top of the stairs by the front door she can see him running way out in the distance. He is coming home from the edge of the forest and at first all she can see is his long, dirty blonde hair swinging in the wind, except there is no wind and she thinks Lord he must really be running fast.
Hooligan, she says out loud still standing there squinting and slowly inching up on her toes.
He’s done something bad for sure. Something really bad if he’s running like that and this time I’m not saving him from nothing. I just hope he didn’t set fire to the forest, is what I hope. That he didn’t set no fire to no forest. Ah, he’s gonna get a beating when he gets here. A big one, too.
The boy is closer now, still running hard and fast and as she squints harder and takes her hand to the forehead to cut the glare, she sees something big and white running after him. Flying, it’s FLYING after him. Now it’s running again.
Hey old man, she yells to the backyard. Come here and look at something. I can’t see too good.
He doesn’t hear her. He’s splitting wood with a thick axe and when she yells to him he is coming down hard on a piece.
Old man, she tries again, come see your son… then she cocks her head and squishes her face together to get a better look. The boy is much closer, still running full speed, still chased by a big white sometimes-flying, sometimes-running, something.
Oh Jesus, she says exploding with laughter and puts her hands on her hips.
Come see your son old man, she yells again. Come see what he’s running from you ol’ deaf fool you.
She walks to the gate and looks down the street and here he comes now like a crazy devil, hair still fluttering, mouth wide open, tears running down his dirty cheeks, looking back to see if it’s gained any ground, and it has, because it can go airborne and its long neck is bent forward aerodynamically and it’s making a hissing sound like a snake and it’s almost got him by the pants now, almost, just a little closer and the boy looks back at it again and begins to cry loudly because he knows that anytime now this angry goose is going to catch him and kill him, probably bite him to death.
Maaaaaaa, open the gate, he yells but she barely hears him for her laughter and before he gets to the house he trips on a large rock and tumbles on the hard, gravel road while the goose breaks off the pursuit and settles down, hissing and flapping his wings at the derailed, weeping boy.
When she opens her eyes it’s a quarter to five. She shifts slowly and props herself up on her good side and looks at the small clock ticking loudly on the nightstand beside her bed. It says five-thirty.
Jeesas, you were some scoundrel, she says. You and that blasted goose…
What goose, ma?
She pats down her permed, gray hair.
In the back room there’s a small suitcase. It’s locked. There’s some money in there for you, Dimi.
Go ahead. Your father hid it in there for twenty-five years. Half his pension worth. Put it in there every month, the cheap old fool. In the back room. Go ahead.
Take the money.
Ma, there’s no back room.
Eh no back room. Let me at it…
And she swings herself to the side of the bed, her feet reaching for the slippers on the floor. The factory across the river blows its whistle.
Third shift’s over.
Remember how hard we laughed when we buried your father?
What was her name? That woman who always showed up and cried at funerals…
That’s it. Remember?
Father Georg dumped vinegar into the wine bottle.
She explodes with an asthmatic laugh, which degrades into a bout of coughing.
Jeeesus that was something, she says. —To see her face pucker up like that, the mooch…
Tea’s ready, ma.
That devil of a woman. She ended up drinking the entire bottle. Out of spite.
And she starts laughing again, and patting down her hair.
I had a strange dream.
Did you now?
Of your father.
He was standing on the bank of the Danube and I was on the other side, the water separating us and running hard. He kept smiling and waving for me to come over. He kept saying come on now, just…come on, don’t be afraid. Come on, sweetheart.
He never called you sweetheart.
…and I kept saying NO NO NO I don’t know how to swim, but he was smiling and waving me over the bloody Danube and I was saying, you old deaf fool, didn’t you hear me? I don’t know how to swim. Except he wasn’t old, he was like I knew him before we were married, and he was just standing there, and then he opened his arms wide and said Look! Look at this! Look at me, Marie! And then I woke up.
Oh for Chrissakes Dimi, when are you going to stop smoking?
Your grandson is getting married.
Jeeesus Dimi, why didn’t you tell me?
I just did, ma. He’s written you a letter. He says he wishes you had a telephone so he could tell you himself.
Like father like son, she smiles and looks at the icon of Jesus imparting mercy with his palms up. When you were a boy you used to ask me how it was that they took a picture of Jesus. You know, way back then when they had no cameras.
When I was a boy you used to tell me you and da placed needles into the mattress so I wouldn’t bounce on it.
Mmmyea, he mocks her.
You were something, Dimi…
Was I now.
She swipes at the air, still laughing:
Don’t be a scoundrel. Days are getting shorter.
When she opens her eyes it’s a quarter to five. She shifts slowly and looks at the small clock ticking loudly on the nightstand beside her bed. It says five-thirty. She’s always set her clocks forty-five minutes ahead. She lifts up a bit on her left elbow.
What’re you doing over there? I can’t see you, what’re you doing?
The man in the doorway takes a half step into the cold room.
Oh for Chrissakes, you old fool. What have you got on? What have you got there?
Only the man is not old. He’s maybe twenty. And he’s wearing an army uniform with epaulets on his shoulders. His hair is slicked back with pomade and his shoes are shiny from paraffin.
You old fool, she says and rights herself up onto the side of the bed. She goes fumbling for her glasses on the nightstand and knocks over the small Jesus icon.
What have you gone and done to yourself now…
She pats down her hair and blinks the room into focus.
For Godsakes man, what’re you doing with that get up on? You old crazy fox. Where’d you find that anyway?
The officer steps back into the doorway. And then he steps back further and turns and goes through the heavy dark curtain of cold in the ante-room.
Wait a minute, for Chrissakes…you deaf bull. Did you hear? Wait a minute, I’ll go unlock the valise for you…
She pushes and lifts into her slippers. She shivers in the morning air and goes across, toward the ante-room. When she steps through the French doors, she pauses and reaches around for the tie to the bathrobe that she’s left on the bed. She thinks of something for a second, changes her mind, and then crosses into the dark ante-room.
Hold your horses, man. There’s the matter of feeding the animals.
Since emigrating to the United States from Romania in 1980, Alex M. Pruteanu has worked as a journalist, television news director, freelance writer, and editor. He is the author of the novella Short Lean Cuts and Gears, a collection of short stories from Independent Talent Group. His writing has appeared in Guernica, PANK, Specter Magazine, NY Arts Magazine, Connotation Press, FRIGG, and many others.