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The Double Rainbow.

The villages from my region, for as long as I've known them, have been even more isolated than certain countries can be. The latter are obliged to maintain diplomatic and economic relations, to shroud themselves in the flag of international organizations, to support their soccer team at the World Cup, or their writers who are nominated for the Nobel Prize. But in a Romanian village, life revolves entirely around one's home: "the hearth of the village" as they say. People identify themselves with the local ethos, whatever that may be, and in many ways their world becomes an island. Food tastes the same through generations and is limited to the same old ingredients. One day I treated my neighbor to some fried mushrooms, because she had appeared on my doorstep, tempted by the appetizing smell--she simply couldn't resist. She tasted the stuff, hesitantly, because although you can find Lepiota procera all over, no one ever picks them.

"They're very tasty;' she admitted, "it's a pity nobody in our village eats these!" Her regret seemed sincere and definitive. However, there is still a feeling of pride when villagers are fortunate enough to have a good crop of wheat, or when it's a good year for fruit--particularly the fruits that can be distilled. They consider themselves superior to people from neighboring villages, where everyone is different, where men have hats that are too large and women bind their aprons too high. A fine and invisible mechanism, like some kind of a gyroscope, guides all their movements and gives the proper measure to things. The language they use among themselves, rudimentary and lacking proper grammar, is how they know when they are with a local, how they recognize one another with absolute precision.

Individual memory seems to be nothing more than part of the collective memory, and so the personal becomes available to everyone. This sense prevents and annihilates all exceptions, whenever such appears. In this way, the village continues to have a strong core, concentrated around those who were born here and who will never leave, except to enlist in the army, or check in to a hospital. When someone new appears, the first impulse of the community is to protect itself, as from a foreign body. If it cannot be eliminated naturally, they set about trying to find a way to use it. But acceptance is still far away. This may occur gradually, over time, but it can always be easily reversed. The way in which this kind of community rejects the other can take several forms: Neglect, adjournment sine die, the distortion of facts, and especially the complete lack of human solidarity toward the intruder.

Under these circumstances, anything can happen, and the villagers have no choice but to go along with it. But could there ever be, by the same token, a community-wide feeling of guilt? What would need to happen for this to occur? How would things turn out? I read a novel by Van Tilburg Clark once, where, in the end, nobody in a town could even look each other in the eye anymore, because of something they did, or allowed to happen. I say this because for weeks no one has said a word about anything that went on. Needless to say, I already knew the whole story, since I read the newspaper in town, but I also wanted to hear the villagers' side of the story, what they thought of it all. The people who told me everything that went on while I was away (whose hens had been stolen, who broke his leg because some wood had fallen off a wagon on top of him--he was drunk for sure, and was suspected of having poisoned the shepherd's sheep--whose wife the priest had been caught with for the second time) didn't even mention the dreadful event, what turned out in fact to be a dreadful series of events, although the press had been to the village, a crew from a local TV station, and it had appeared on the news. Perhaps they were only talking about it to one another, in the confines of their own homes. They didn't even seem to be hiding anything; it was as if nothing at all had happened, or as if they had forgotten all about it. Obliviousness is itself an opinion. And if ethics is collective, perhaps the resulting uneasiness is also collective--except no one can feel it individually, no one can claim even a bit of it for themselves.

When I was told that during my absence, a professor, who also wrote books, spoke like a philosopher, and wore a grizzled beard had moved into the village, I was a bit disturbed. A better-built man, I was told, by a woman who raised her arms to show me how high. He even claimed to know me, which transformed my uneasiness into panic. I had come here to find a comfortable seclusion, without any controversies or alcoholic friendships. Especially on winter evenings or rainy days. I was no longer the only "personality" in the village, a fact that people were quick to relay. I knew the house; I knew the tree in front of it, large and full, with lush, green apples, the one that hid the house six months out of the year. In the house lived a Gypsy, a blacksmith named Daniel, together with his handsome wife and two children who gathered scrap iron. No--the Gypsy had already sold it to the Professor, a woman informed me, one who would have liked me to reveal a few things about the man in question, so that she could include him in all the town's gossip. Only after a few weeks did I notice that something had actually started happening in the courtyard: two day laborers from town were coming down to work there and then get terribly drunk. It wasn't long before the Professor and I ran into each other. "What are you doing here?" I asked him. "I'm already an old hand around this place," he answered proudly. "I went to church, drank in both pubs, donated money for the new electric cross." The man was Ioan Horotan, a philosophy professor at a relatively well-known secondary school, probably just recently retired.

I had remembered his bulky figure wandering through town, his listless, serious and silent face, his rectilinear gait. He didn't ever seem to know what it meant to be in a hurry. Even his skin seemed to weigh more than yours. He looked at you with a certain curiosity, but he always spoke brusquely, sometimes in monosyllables. His complexion remained olive colored, his black eyes became even more bloodshot, and with time, he grew a short, white beard. He cared very much about his image and even had the reputation of being an intellectual. He started wearing large hats. He even published a volume of poems at some point, but which went unnoticed--something that, I realized later, had hurt him tremendously. He had a doctorate in philosophy and he was constantly threatening to develop his own philosophical treatise. He seemed to be competing with someone, though we never knew with whom. We used to call him Giovanni. We hadn't exactly been friends, but still I don't know why I couldn't ever remember his last name. I was convinced that he was a drinker, and that this was what his terseness hid so well, but still I never discovered where exactly he went on his binges. He made some efforts to get involved in the local press, and even chaired a nationalistic paper--there were so many in those days, so what's one more? But I suppose he gave that up when he realized that a newspaper's emphasis was on politics, not on philosophy- or when he had used up all the money he had put aside.

Villages don't know how to deal with the exiled, or even the self-exiled, for that matter. But that's what he was, and in a way, so was I. I had been absent for too long, as had my parents. We had become concerned with things that they cared nothing about, things that they considered worthless. If the world ended up imposing their foreign values on them in their own village, then what? They wouldn't be able to control anything anymore, not even the relationships between themselves. It was important to know the man inside and out, to keep track of him, so there wouldn't be any surprises. And so they asked the man all sorts of questions, kept a close watch on him, slinked around as if they were all private investigators. Who does things the other way around? What could a man who owned an apartment in the city want from them, why would anyone sell their apartment to come here? Most of the time, an apartment in the city was the only thing that could motivate one of them to abandon their native village. They worked their whole lives so that their children could choose to live there, in those concrete boxes, and then come back to the village on occasion to work in the field and stock up on some traditional foods. There haven't been any weddings for years, and at the funerals the young ones (who aren't so young anymore) don't even attend, unless it's for their parents. After that, they allow themselves to be permanently assimilated into the throngs of concrete blocks.

After a while, he started to lend money to a few people, writing their names down methodically in his notebook. He had seen this done at the bar. Calculating averages. I think he had it in mind to buy the goodwill of those that would be with him in his old age. Perhaps he didn't know that regardless of how many friendships he might earn, it didn't mean that he would earn even a part of their collective sympathy. The village he was looking for only existed in his imagination. Maybe he thought he could change the whole community, model it after his own version of fair play. He thought that if he couldn't educate them, he could at least manipulate them in a positive direction. What was it that he didn't know? That as soon as they abandon their fences to decay, their property is no longer private, and therefore, loses its value: the people pick the ripening fruits, just as if they were picking wild cherries or strawberries from the woods. The orchards that are left without an overseer become like public land. Near the abandoned houses, objects start to disappear, first the autonomous ones: iron casks, barrels, fence posts--then roof shingles. It looks as if over time, the farmsteads are dissolving, as if assailed by termites. But at nighttime. Because, initially, this sort of thing never happened in broad daylight.

As the weeds were growing, and among them, the lilacs in full bloom, I discovered all these goings on by accident, when I noticed where Gogu was keeping the things he had stolen. From there he was distributing them whenever he found buyers. And I found out that people were secretly buying their neighbor's stolen items at almost no cost. A widow never hesitated to offer a cup of plum brandy for an object that was worth much more. And she didn't feel the least bit guilty. Wasn't she old and without anyone to help her? And then all of a sudden somebody comes along, like the Professor, to repossess a house like this, and the people resent him terribly: Why did he have to do this? Didn't he have anywhere else to go? "He won't be staying here long," was what I saw in the eyes of the people he'd just spoken to. He wasn't going to stay, but he wasn't going to leave either.

Once he felt the need to explain to me: "You know why, out of all the villages I could've stopped in, I chose this one? I didn't know you lived around here. I don't want to bother you. But I wandered through all the villages closer to the city--looking for a place. It had been raining and above the valley a rainbow appeared. Full, double, like in a painting. You wanted to just walk right through it like it was an arc de triomphe. I hadn't seen anything like it in my life. It was like something painted by the Limbourg Brothers. While I was looking at the rainbow, a drunk guy came over and greeted me, but he didn't even glance at the celestial phenomenon. 'That's what they always look like in our village" he explained. And then I said to myself: 'Well! If they have rainbows like this!'"

I gave him a smile. His literary ambition couldn't be denied. But he hadn't seen everything: how the streams had quickly become the garbage bin of the community. How nature, overwhelmed, couldn't recycle anything anymore.

He was trying to rehabilitate the old house as methodically as possible. First of all, he disposed of everything the Gypsies had collected around the house, cleaned the yard which suddenly looked quite a bit larger than I had known it as a child. He ripped out the old electric wires from the wall and had them replaced. He made new eaves, and underneath gave them new linings. He replaced the floor. He burned all the odds and ends or gave them away. Any trace of the Gypsies started to disappear. The interior was worked over for quite a while. He made a bathroom of gritstone and ceramic tile, he even had a sink with faucets, a boiler for hot water, and I lent a few barrows of gravel to him to build a septic tank. I planned on getting it all back much later, when he would get a truckload from the city. He'd already paid for it, and today it can still be found lying like a pyramid in the middle of his yard. He would buy milk, but only after tasting it. He had probably tried all the cows in the village. First a specimen had been brought to him as a sample, and when he made up his mind he placed an order for two liters every evening.

He was throwing his money away. Just as I used to do. People were raising their prices automatically, while he listened motionless; then he reduced the cost by a third, and then the deal was made. A method that was a bit too simple. Those with a natural sense of opportunism caught on pretty quickly. His strategy was to give the impression that he had everything under control. I think he had that sense of fairness that ran counter to the rest of the world. The village was also supporting a few parasites: alcoholics who lived off of petty theft. These were probably the first people he met, always hanging around with nothing else to do, except carefully observing where he put all the things left outside overnight, offering to help out, always grateful for a glass of brandy. They didn't want any other compensation. He could negotiate with each one separately, he could even impose his own point of view on them with remarkable success, but out of his sight people became again what they had been, what they always had been. But then, the Professor wasn't born yesterday either--he wasn't taken in by their smiles. What did he care if they never improved their lives; he would be perfectly content so long as he could rely on their respect and flattery.

He introduced me to his mother, who gave me more than one suspicious look. She'd never much trusted her son's acquaintances, and here he'd said they were moving to a village where they didn't know anybody. She'd seen my kind before. But the Professor's overriding concern was that she simply be pleased with her new life. She had agreed to sell her apartment in the city as well, and move here to live out her old age--this was where they would invest the money they had saved. She still hadn't quite gotten used to the idea of spending the rest of her life here, but the Professor was sure that life in the village wouldn't be anything but comfortably predictable. He was like a starling who was building his nest too late. He wasn't at all worried about being bored. He came here thinking that the city was over for him--that there was nothing more to be seen there. Village life seemed preferable. He even bought a second-hand car, so that the old lady wouldn't feel isolated, although, even at his age, he didn't have a driver's license. The old woman, however, had never lived in the countryside, and she had a genuine fear of all the inconveniences of rural life. Hygiene, for one. A retired teacher, she was neat, even coquettish. Her hair was permed, probably at least once a month. She preferred colorful clothes, and wore gold earrings. By comparison, the local women all dress themselves in black as soon as they pass through menopause, and then they go outside to sit on a bench, testifying to the whole community that they've given up on sexual competition. Then, as time goes on, they think it's perfectly natural for them to be more and more indifferent to their appearances--coquetry and even hygiene are for younger women. For the old ones it all comes down to gossip and negotiation. From this point on they simply keep an eye on things--to make sure village life remains unchanged.

The Professor paid me a visit, barging into my home, which could have used some straightening up. His solemn face didn't suggest much enthusiasm. My house suddenly seemed much smaller. He walked up the narrow staircase, without leaving a single corner unexamined. "I've learned something new," he said as he went out, without mentioning what it was. He even inspected the shutters, painted in scarlet. Then he looked across the colorful sea of zinnias. I told him he should help himself to some flowers for his mother, and handed him a pair of scissors. I told him to choose the most beautiful he could find. He looked at me in disbelief. "I've already picked some out, as a matter of fact, because by the time I get back next week, the most beautiful ones will already be past bloom." I heard him snipping the scissors for a while. He made the most beautiful bouquet he could. I watched how he walked along the dusty alleyway, with heavy, even steps, carrying the bunch of flowers awkwardly, as if they were a lantern. I laughed to myself, thinking what people would say when they see him, a man his age, carrying flowers to his mother. Here, something like that was unimaginable.

He asked me to show him the famous knotgrass. There was a patch of it right at his feet that was rough and short, almost weaved like a carpet of jute. He looked disappointed when he saw it. He cut down the old plum trees in the front, which were half dried out and hollow, the wood red. Good for making a fire. In their place, he planted apple trees, the kind that produce big, golden apples--a nice aesthetic effect. "Behind the garden there, I have some fish in that stream," he told me one day, as if he had made a new discovery. "You want to go fishing?" I asked him, amused. "No," he answered kindly, "I just like knowing they're there." While wandering through the courtyard he wore a large, straw hat, to protect himself from the sun. Sometimes, just over the fence, it was the only thing I could see, moving along like a flying saucer. He gave directives verbally, never raising his hands to gesture. He governed over his yard with his eyes. He replaced the pillars on the porch, which he presided from among the apple branches. From there I could see all the bottles of vodka, the blue fiscal stamps still glued on the lids, lined up like soldiers on parade. And at the end of the day he would scan the road as from a watchtower or balcony.

I don't know whether he was born in the country, or how all these things looked to him. In the dark, you couldn't see people, but could only listen as they greeted one another, their voices hoarse from tobacco. Frogs croaking, dogs barking. The red Connex cell-phone tower on the hilltop mingled with the stars. The nights were chilly. In the morning, the mockingbirds whistled, "The kids are up!" Later on, barely dressed women walked along the road in broad daylight, as if the village itself was their own backyard, carrying milk to the collecting point. At nightfall, the cows and the water buffalo returned from pasture, leaving their manure on the asphalt, cars respectfully behind them. It was then close to the time that the bar would open. Professor Horotan's only worry was that, at night, when he was coming home from the tavern, he wouldn't be run over by one of the trucks that hurtled through the village like monsters, emerging from around the bend of his house with no warning. A deeper shade of darkness was left in their wake, and a powerful gust that could almost take you off of your feet, no matter how sober you might be.

He went to the bar on long nights, for all the talk there. He took a worn velvet pillow with him, so he could sit comfortably on one of the rigid chairs. The minister also stopped by, but he had decided long ago that he would only drink at home. He had his own brandy from the church's plum trees, which were, as you might imagine, the most productive in the village. He would walk through to exchange a word or two with people, but in actuality he came to see the woman behind the counter. He would buy a pack of sunflower seeds and eat them there, using an ashtray for the shells. From there he could learn everything that went on in the village. The bar also had a small shop, where women sometimes did their shopping. Inside it was cold and awfully bright. It was there that the Professor found fertile ground for his humorless irony, and, from time to time, like compensation, he would treat people to a round of cheap brandy. This was also his drink of choice. I also knew him to take long walks through the village, getting a sense of his surroundings, as if taking inventory. He might use any sort of pretext for this; perhaps looking for a man who owned a horse and cart to transport the sand he needed. He might have wandered until he reached the end of the deserted streets, stumbling upon the site of the old village, before the houses became regrouped along the main roads, vibrating because of the traffic, the brick walls cracking, houses that just the day before were rather impressive, now starting to shift and decay. Eventually, he wasn't all that interested in venturing out anymore. He had come here to become a sedentary man.

I think the village was keeping him under surveillance. Some of the neighbors started to walk right up to his doorstep. Daniel Lacatus, the Gypsy that had sold him the place, wasn't really one of them either, but he was in a more advanced stage of assimilation. Or, perhaps, they simply considered him to be inferior, and therefore, more likeable. So they were often more tolerant of him. He was a slender and mustachioed man, rather boisterous. He pretended to be a blacksmith. I drove him back home once, and he talked and talked the whole way, promising to fix up and tighten my pickaxe. "Don't go to him because he'll ruin it," others advised me. "He's a hack." In fact, I've never even heard that musical sound coming from his yard--the hammer striking the anvil. I haven't seen even a pile of coals.

There was a big family of Gypsies that took shelter across the road. Costan, the eldest, was rather fragile and whiskered, wearing a faded, floppy hat. He looked just like the estate serfs must have looked like. Certainly a good man, who could never resist begging me for a cigarette, offering me things I didn't need in return. He tried to tempt me with brooms made of birch-tree wattle, as if I could do anything with those. He wasn't lazy; he had the calloused hands of a plowman. When barefoot, his feet seemed huge for such a short guy. You had to be amazed by the fact he had such a large family. And respect it as well. They were forever setting out into the field, or in the woods looking for mushrooms, strawberries, twigs for making wicker baskets, and curative plants. They left in groups and then the caravan dissolved in the woods. A crowd of harvesters. Sometimes I didn't know what anyone could find at that time of the year in the fields but I would still see them wandering the tilled land, probably looking for potatoes that had been left behind. At the end of the summer, sometimes one of them would take a net made of drapery and go fishing in the brook, struggling to get as many fish as he could, especially in times of drought, when the waters were low, the river broken up, the fish trapped in tiny pools, stinking of mud. The Gypsy wife, swarthy and merry, with her face shaped like a full moon, greeted me, regardless of how many times I passed in front of their house. She was impressed by my straw hat, beard, and pipe.

From there to the parish house, there were no other neighbors. Certainly, Father Preda had a different sort of status in town. He was a handsome man and a womanizer. Talking to you, his eyes wandered all over: he was interested in everything that moved. It was a perfect village for him. The women whose time had passed were all benevolently occupied in the garden while he met with the younger ones. My aunt tells me that there were more and more Baptists in the village now, after Preda made passes at just about every woman. I knew something about this myself. The crosses he liked to build seemed to be made specifically for those women he lived with for several years. "But which of these women became Baptists--the ones that benefited from his attention, or, the ones he ignored?" My aunt pretended with dignity that she hadn't heard my question. From a political and economical point of view, life has been equivocal here for some time now. Father Preda must have concluded from this that the next life--the one that had escaped communism--would be equivocal as well. So how could he have intervened when someone suddenly arrived and told him that there were screams coming from the old woman's house? "This is the sort of thing that could end up in court!" said the priest cautiously. Everyone pretended not to hear a thing, to avoid becoming witnesses. Where did this anxiety come from? Could it have been a remnant of the days of the Hungarian administration, when false witnesses (meaning biased witnesses) were brutally punished? I had seen in an archived document that some villagers had been made to pay for their testimonies with several sacks of wheat and four sheep. Or, was this perhaps a consequence of that period of ruthless collectivization, when everyone was taken to court for anything until they agreed to give up their land for the good of their "comrades"? My uncle used to whisper to me in his own yard, for fear of the neighbors overhearing him and his business becoming public. You couldn't have any privacy behind those little fences, unlike the sheltered yards that the German's used to build.

Some of the wrinkled old women would talk from the middle of the road with the Professor's mother, who still wouldn't leave the perimeter of her yard, as if she didn't trust this narrow new universe which was now suffocating her. Nature was getting too close and her anxiety grew as the colder seasons approached. Woods surrounded the village on both sides, could be seen on the hilltops and descended to the base of the valleys. When the autumn rains started, people besieged the forest at once to gather firewood--the wet, cold trunks of hornbeam. The tractor was always getting stuck in the muddy ruts, and you could still hear its motor sputtering till evening as it struggled to get out of the ditches, which just became deeper and and more flooded as the wheels spun up more mud. Until the frost came, the roads remained impassable. The air had the color of smoke; there was a feeling of isolation and loneliness. Because of the rain, the naked woods appeared to withdraw into the distance, dissolving into the horizon.

And then, one night, the next summer, everything fell apart, before anything could be straightened out. When the intense heat of the day dissipated, the people who worked for the Professor had found him lying in bed. They couldn't get a word out of him. He had probably suffered a stroke thanks to a combination of heat and the booze he was always drinking. And because he was a reticent man who sometimes didn't speak except in monosyllables, people didn't notice right away--he was always incoherent. They called an ambulance that took him to the city, but he was brought back home the same night. Despite the fact that it was such a short distance, it didn't help him. During the days following his death, more people entered his yard than when he first arrived. They recalled how he used to look out with a somber expression at the big blue cross that stood at the intersection, the one built almost directly in front of his house by those who had once returned from Siberia, now adorned by Preda with paper icons girded with the Romanian national flag, as if Jesus had been Romanian. "A bit too close!" the Professor had commented many times. But the cross was to remain unmoved, and they were about to pass by with his coffin, too, going down the steep path that poured all its muddy slop onto the road on rainy days, and which during a drought looked as if it were made of terracotta. The villagers still made a line behind the coffin, following along, as if he had been one of them, carrying their hats in their hands, more out of habit than anything else, respecting the routine of the journey to the cemetery. It was Death that they were respecting.

I don't know how the woman recovered from her son's death. Only after seeing her in complete despair did the women of the village think her sufficiently vulnerable and climb up to her doorstep. Many times over the following weeks I saw a woman going out to the gate that you could only open by fumbling with the lock from the inside. I didn't miss the fuss in the yard, nor that straw hat hovering above the fence. The emblematic figure of the Professor hadn't wandered around the village often enough for anyone else to miss it either. The ones that owed him money didn't exactly rush to visit the old lady and pay up. Summer was passing, and the foliage of the apple trees had hidden the house for some time now. Every investment and every tension had ceased. When the leaves fell, I saw those rolling shutters again, painted in red, similar to mine. They had been closed for a long time. The house began to take on a melancholy air. I don't know if the well-known thieves in the village--Gogu and Hornicu--had already pillaged the yard at night, knowing that the old woman had no intention of going outside. Even if, or perhaps especially if, she heard suspicious noises.

The old woman had most likely decided to sell the house, to go back to where she came from, but the money she would have received would barely have been enough to buy a more modest house--considerably more spartan, even, than the one she sold. But then she couldn't actually sell the place, even if another naive buyer came along, until her ownership had become legal: the Gypsy hadn't closed his deal with the Professor legally. He hadn't filed any documents. There were papers missing; no one had gone to a notary, since that meant additional expenses and taxes. This wasn't an issue at the time, the Professor had explained to me. He had been very cautious in dealing with the man--he was only going to put the rest of the money in the Gypsy's hands after he had all the necessary documents. Now he was dead, and his mother needed the paperwork more than ever, if she wanted to get away from the village. They filed the documents, but official permission for the deal was painfully slow in coming, as usual. The Gypsy probably lost his patience. Everything seemed trivial to him. Why would anyone want to worry about paperwork? He probably thought of the money the old woman was keeping from as his.

Things might have stopped here. But I ended up reading about the events that followed in a local paper, as I mentioned before, while sitting in a cafe with a coffee in front of me, which I hesitated to drink, because of the lipstick on the rim of the cup. Bored, I glanced through every section of the paper until I got to the events column and the notes that sat on the margins, beside the political commentaries. And there I found the name of the village, a bit strange to see it, and the name of the man who was alleged to be the criminal, to be held in preventive custody for the next twenty-seven days, as well as the three words pronounced by the prosecutor: the man had "raped, killed, robbed" (having taken, as I would find out later, the amount of money that he considered appropriate), and gotten hold of some gold earrings that the victim had owned for over eighty years. Only the victim's initials appeared in the paper, but which of the old women nearby could possibly have had gold earrings without giving them away to some niece, as they traditionally did? I didn't make the connection at first. I was going to go back to the village after a few weeks and would find more out then. But, inexplicably, doubts and premonitions began to germinate inside me.

The man was drunk, I was told, when he did what he did. He'd talked to the old woman, then was seen staggering down the highway, hitchhiking. Maybe he got drunk especially for that. Not a single car stopped to pick up the guy who was standing on the side of the road with his head bobbling around. He probably wasn't really trying to get a ride--more interested, perhaps, in observing the movement of the neighbors. The Costan family was heading off in procession toward the forest; the guy in the house to the left who commuted to the city was always gone in the morning, while his sick mother, suffering from elephantiasis, couldn't even raise her overweight body out of bed. Some other people, passing through, minding their own business, went down the road in front of the man, and then things settled down. It couldn't have been more perfect in the dead of night.

Why would she allow him to enter her yard again? Or did he just know all the ways in? After all, it had been his yard at one time. He pushed her into the house and locked the door behind him. It was probably at that moment that she started to scream. I understood that the screams could be heard for several hours. Some people must have listened quietly, just hoping for it to end. And when it ended, that was good enough for them. Perhaps their desperate hope, since they were incapable of feeling empathy for strangers, was that there wouldn't be any consequences for the rest of them. So, to stay out of it, they locked themselves indoors. Then, after a while, they must have thought it was too quiet, because they started to hover around the house. The gate was locked, and the door of the house was locked from the inside as well. The attacker was found fast asleep over the deceased woman, with his pants down. Dizzy with liquor, he couldn't even mumble two words when they took him off her and gathered up the woman's robe, which had been ripped off over her swollen feet. He had raped her several times, and the woman was beginning to show bruises, the dark blue imprints of his fingers around her neck. A golden earring, shaped like a shiny black currant, had been found in one of his boots. The other was never found.

People must have flocked around the DA when he appeared, together with the forensics people and the media. The priest was in the middle of things again. It all seemed preordained. The people hid from the cameras, and then one of them mumbled a few words that were eventually edited out anyway, so the man wasn't able to see himself on the evening news.

She was buried beside her son, and they both probably found it a more welcoming place than the village itself. After a while, a rumor found its way to me, one the villagers had started themselves, that the Professor had been living with his mother in an incestuous relationship, and in order for this to be more believable, they assured me that she wasn't his biological mother, that he had been adopted as a child. This was supposed to diminish their guilt. The explanation seemed to satisfy everyone. Wasn't he seen giving her flowers all the time? Didn't they see the tender, courtly manner in which he treated her?

The official documents of ownership for the property finally arrived soon thereafter. The long fence that he had painted brown sat untouched, in full view, now mostly used for election posters. As if it were possible to cast your vote right there at the scene of the crime.

It's the end of spring now, and in the several weeks since I came back, no one's brought the subject up. There are only a few people at the shop, and the woman at the bar explained to me that everyone goes to sleep as soon as they get home from work. I badgered my neighbor Vasile, who was tilling his garden--a bit late in the season for that--planting potatoes, as he always does. He uses an old horse-drawn plow, and limps lazily alongside it. His son would usually be doing the job. Today he's in the mood to chat, and even drops a proverb on me: "A host has it bad--the poor have it worse!" He's stolen a little strip of my land, right from under my eyes. When I get around to the subject of the old woman, he isn't quick to talk. He saunters over to his plow. "It would have been better if she just gave him the money"--and that's all he has to say. That is true, isn't it? I look behind him, at the soil full of small, white stones that must have gathered there over the years. I also ask the gap-toothed Garrulous, who only has two teeth in her mouth--one on the top, one on the bottom, like someone's used her as a punching bag. She likes to talk to me from a distance in a shrill voice that would be the envy of any rooster. At first she answers carefully: "I don't know. I wasn't at home." Then she says, "And what about that lady, anyway? She would get all dressed up and prance around! Ridiculous, especially at her age! Look at me," she went on: "I act my age, and dress it too. I'm safe," She said "lady" like it was a dirty word. Then she goes back home, locks the gate behind her, and barricades herself inside in case there are any more questions. The Baptist, who used to discuss all sorts of things with me, probably in hopes of finding topics for his weekly sermon, beats around the bush, trying to find an opening to present me with the appropriate biblical parable. This one was about a priest and a Levite who were robbed and beaten by thieves without getting any help. The story seems a bit ambiguous to me. I think Father Preda might actually have been accusing himself of something.

"We weren't at home!" they said. Where could everyone be in the middle of the day? It's true that villages like this one can be remarkably deserted at lunchtime. People are out in the fields, children head off to God knows where, and the old men grow deaf and blind until the intense heat passes. Now they're probably waiting for time to heal everything, to wipe away all traces--the deserted courtyard, the debts to the Professor, and that uncomfortable feeling hovering around every one of them. There will be other events, other funerals. The village diminishes and the cemetery grows. There will be even fewer of them in future, they know that much. I saw just about all of them at his funeral, on a sunny and cold day, dressed warmly, with swollen faces almost blue from the cold. After a certain age, men and women start to look alike, as if here, in the countryside, the elderly are of a single sex. They were listening with their heads bowed to what Father Preda said in his spare and illiterate rhetoric, almost gleeful, making them feel guilty and worthless as human beings, self-indulgent and sinful from birth. People recognized themselves in his sermon. I think they recognized him, too, this priest who fits his village like a glove. Then, everybody went to supper, where a bereaved woman made one final sacrifice--one which she wouldn't live long enough to recover from, financially.

I also talked to a sociologist. But, frankly, I didn't understand anything he said to me, something about mass psychology. You can't just go to a sociologist like you would to a doctor: "Look, for some time I've had a problem with my community. It makes me dizzy and depressed."

The Professor's stay in the village was short. In fact, after that, the village should have gone back to the way it was before his arrival. I didn't think I would ever discover anything new about this community that I already knew so well. Nevertheless, as in mathematics or a koan, when you add one unit, and then subtract it, you aren't left with the same figure you started out with--you feel the absence of the addition. And as far as I'm concerned, I'm not sure if--instead of writing all this--it wouldn't have been better to pretend, at least for a moment, that I admired and welcomed the Professor, that I'd said a few nice words to him during that short period of time that we knew each other. We were, as they say, neighbors. What other word could I use?

Translated by Cristina Florea and Ehren Schimmel
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Author:Vlad, Alexandru
Publication:The Review of Contemporary Fiction
Article Type:Short story
Geographic Code:4EXRO
Date:Mar 22, 2010
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