Ioana Ieronim

 

 

(Romania-USA)

 

 

 

from Eclogue

 

 

translated from Romanian by

Adam J. Sorkin and Ioana Ieronim

 

 

Eclogue is the story of Lavinia, a widow who travels with her two young daughters from her port city on the Black Sea to the village of her husband’s kin: a small rural community in the Romanian Carpathians. Lavinia succeeds to raise her daughters through strength of character and hard work as the village seamstress. Thus she is both the protagonist, bearing her own life and ordeal, and a shrewdly perceptive witness who knows everybody and lets us hear her muted voice as we hear the villagers’. To them, she is paradoxically an outsider, the other, in turn respected and distrusted, and likewise an insider who gradually became part of this mountain locale with its pastoral heritage. The events take place at a margin of space on the still remembered border between the former Austrian and the Ottoman empires. And they fill a thin, transitional margin of time: the Soviet takeover following World War II.

 

With its ironic title, Ioana Ieronim’s Eclogue is a kind of novel in verse, a book intended to preserve and understand one small place, subject to traumatic change, as a lens for much more than itself.

 

 

 

“Look, Haiduca is coming.”

“Who?”

“Leana, Haiduca, from the Haiduc family, she’s been your apprentice here, too,” a girl says, peering out through the curtains.

“Don’t you know Leana?”

“Hmmm, yes.” Lavinia knows—their mother, the mother of these Haiducs,

Maria-Mariuţa, the sweetest of women, with her blue eyes glowing under her kerchief.

She and her man Gheorghe, as kind as she, had seven children like savages. People called them Haiduci, Outlaws.

Whenever her time came, Mariuţa hurried to the stables and didn’t let anyone near her.

There among horses and cattle, she gave birth to them all—one every two, three years—

her shadow stretched itself dragon-like when she returned by herself, the baby wrapped in her skirts.

In this way, she has spent her life between flowing springs of milk, days in the field, embroidery, weaving at the loom. And now she has become nearly as weightless as a child,

who would heed her any longer?

The sons and daughters have grown up to fill the world

with labor, with power, with sin.

 

“Today I stay here and start my own dress,” Haiduca says in a hoarse voice.

“I have done my work in the field and soon it’s my brother’s wedding.”

“Which of them gets married, tell me again.”

“Paraschiv, the second. We’ll be pruned a bit at home.

But the bride, yes, she’s from this valley here…”

“And how is Vida?” a pale blond girl’s voice is heard, a thin ponytail down her back and squinting eyes.

A gate turns in Lavinia’s mind: cruel claws, these words, digging in again and again,

ripping at thy neighbor’s heart, steeped in strong poisons of ridicule.

 

“Now’s the first time when I speak about this, Mrs. Lavinia,” Leana tells her one evening.  “I haven’t said a word to anybody. But still, people knew…

Truly I felt bad for Tina, my sister-in-law, because her mother tormented her terribly, and afterwards he, too… ’cause… poor Tina, she says to me, ‘Why did your brother take me for a wife, just to ruin my life?’ ‘Listen,’ she says, ‘he told me, “It’s that when I look at her, the earth, it bursts into flame beneath my feet, while you… you’re like that fence post,”’ so Tina says. ‘Then gone he was,’ she says. ‘He may have gone to your sister, for he hadn’t come back before dawn and I…

so downcast and very afraid that my mother might notice.’”

 

The grandfather clock neighs once, then strikes fully seven times. “Then not long after, Vida gave birth to the child.

You might have heard, oh such a shame. Nobody had noticed her being heavy with child

and now everybody pestering her—with whom, with whom, with whom?

They said it was for her own good, but she only kept crying, not saying a word.

And how pretty the little baby girl…”

Leana Haiduca swallows with difficulty. Lavinia uses the moment to ask, “All right, but then wasn’t Costandina born like this, crippled? Did signs of it not show themselves from the beginning because her parents were brother and sister?”

“The doctor said it was from her not eating any food. Vida. From her not eating, the baby could have died.”

“Then what people say is true? That you wanted to let the baby waste away?”

“Oh no, dear me, no! But after the initial frenzy, Vida locked herself in a room and said she would take care of it. She didn’t let anyone approach them. This is why. Vida wouldn’t accept any food, she only came out like an apparition, she took nothing more than some water from the barrel on the porch.

That’s all she gave the child too, cold water. When Mother finally managed to break Vida’s stubborn will, Vida was imagining things, her mind had wandered somewhere else, she was sickened by her milk. The milk had gone bad in her.

But she was very young. So she herself healed.

It’s Costandina who paid for it and still does.”

“Do you think that she can do tailoring, the way she is?”

“In school, as you may have heard, she has been very clever

and she’s skilled with her hands,” Haiduca says—and falls silent.

 

Her big red fingers remain tightly pressed between her knees, because of the burden of her confession.

 

“I’ll stay some moments more and gab, then I must take myself off to go to the monastery, to be there for the midnight service,” Leana mutters to Lavinia amidst her apprentices. “Mrs. Lavinia, don’t you have any more sewing for me?”

“But what would you be doing, may God preserve me, there at the monastery in the night?”

“Ah… I have prayers offered that it to be singled out, that the evil be brought to light…

He knows what awaits him, the guilty one. He became greedy, didn’t he?

With all that merino wool of ours, the very best, may he be damned!

But he’s going to pay back… ’cause this can’t be, no no no.

He knows about it, I told it to the whole village. I am a believer—it cannot fail.”

“But you have so many sheep, so many people working,

how can you know who the evildoer is?”

“In my guesses, I know, I know who did. For wasn’t he the one who brought the sacks in the truck? A friend. An associate. But I cannot be the one to say.

It’s going to be shown and made clear to all through the services, that’s for certain.

He kept two full sacks. Greedy and stingy!

envious that we are better off…

Don’t you think that we have an understanding with those in the Bărăgan, with our brothers, exactly how many they send?” She is stabbing the calico for a little child’s dress.

“Aren’t you afraid at night in the mountains?”

“I’m not afraid, not a bit. What, have I done any wrong?

How glorious it is among the beech trees on the path with inscriptions from the Evangelists…”

“You can see well enough to read in the dark!” the young voice of the girl is mocking. Haiduca frowns, she changes the thread in the needle, she has trouble threading it.

“Up there, when the stars gleam through the leaves, you feel like vanishing in the splendor of the world.” She heaves a big sigh.

“But Mr. Chief of Police, what does he, as one in the profession, what does he have to say?” the little devil of a girl asks. Like puffs of steam rising from the fabric from the heavy iron filled with hot coals.

 

Summer night stars like tears

drowsiness silence.

The wild beasts wandering on the hill. Fruit drops in the damp, blind light.

 

*

 

Uncle Lazăr had nine sons and a daughter

they always had a little one rocking, and another just a little bigger in a hanging cradle.

But his woman, Sofia, tall, arid, nothing showed on her. She moved around quickly, a silent shadow, from hen house to rabbit hutch to the garden, washing her hands from the pail on the porch, making butter in the churn.

Nobody else in the village raised rabbits and goats as they did.

He went alone to the mountains to hunt—and came back with his pouch full of game and joys and lots of stories, for anyone to hear. Uncle Lazăr had nine sons and a daughter.

A daughter lost in the world, and nine sons as wise, as quiet, as young girls.

They took turns as shepherds for the herd of goats. Whoever had a need could knock at their door.

 

When Sofia came to the seamstress’s for the first time

Lavinia started a new page for her in her notebook.

“You have the most modern figure in the village, thin and long.”

The woman remained silent. Then “I don’t know about such things… we are Adventists…”

Lavinia thought: so that’s why. Everybody praises them but there’s a lingering sense of strangeness around their house where you would expect to see wolf and lamb together in the manger.

 

Iacob, uncle Lazăr’s son, set out to mow at daybreak—the grass wet with dew, birds shaking off sleep like winged seeds.

Iacob walked at a measured pace—his gladness like flames dancing over hazel branches.

Boys his age now are drivers of trucks, they shout at one another from behind the wheel, and they laugh, they laugh as if they have not fully left their childhood behind them.

Only the engine pushes onward, the road does not forgive and you advance in the smell of the hot engine.

And the earth flows in springs as if nothing has ever soiled it.

 

Iacob has eaten from his bag and starts mowing. He swings his body, draws the scythe through the flesh of grass in ample arches.

In the great sleep, among drowsy crickets, the ghost of a snake that could pierce your heel with its teeth.

When the arms stop moving—silence, a mystery that encompasses everything,

voices that call one another from hill to hill.

Heavy luminous gray clouds approach from the horizon and quickly fill the sky, the earth moans,

huge drops suddenly start to pound down on him. The voices on the hills have been silenced.

The boy goes away with a sack covering his head

Iaaacob! Iaaoo, the echo answers him in liquid circles.

 

In the little log house on the hill, it’s like in mother’s kitchen, narrow and warm. The rain falls and envelops it, nothing stirs inside.

Warm and sheltered, warm alluring happy—why go the way of the world?

In vain you hope for a shelter, an ark, Iacob: you’re young and strong

the world calls out to you: take the car keys.

Aha! the pact with the old, limping father.

 

Like the belly of a trout or the breast of a dove,

like trout and dove, this fruit falling at the core of summer.

 

Costandina speaks: “I was out of breath from running so hard. You see, the doctor told me I shouldn’t catch cold in my lungs, for that could be the death of me.”

The girls keep sewing in Lavinia’s room, caught in the waters of the mirror buried in its gilt, silken wood.

“I leap over the threshold into the log house on the hill, there where you enter it. When I’m about to spread my woolen coat to sit on it, I catch sight of Iacob, aunt Sofica’s son, so we get a fright at one another.”

The dusty white sun through the old curtains. Lavinia in the courtyard calls her hens.

“He was silent and just stared at me, I thought he too might feel disgust at me—I can sense that in many. They are curious and look at me, the way I am,

but with disgust. Then it’s better for me to stay silent. Why also let my stammering begin?

Nevertheless, I thought, how long are we going to remain silent?

I rolled words around my mouth shaping how to say something about his brother, Ali.

Iacob looked at me, so I said, ‘Look, I’ve never known, you have blue eyes from nearby. Why don’t you look at people, when you speak…?’ He says, ‘Maybe from shyness.’

‘Why should you be shy?’ I ask. Now I knew that he wasn’t feeling disgust.

And I remembered Ali.

‘All of us were so sorry. ’Cause he was gentle, didn’t bother anyone, and, look,

how it wasn’t given for you to keep him.’ Iacob: ‘That’s how it was fated. When we were all at the river to swim, you may remember, we took good care of him. He was wise—but I think that he was unable to tell water from land.

That’s why, his not knowing, the waters could take him.’

 

‘At that time my people sent me out to speak with your father,’ I say. He’d been sitting, exhausted, by our fence, then I hear grandmother,

‘Go stay with Lazăr, for you are innocent, you’re like poor Ali.’

When he saw me, Uncle Lazăr started to wail,

‘Don’t you, too, tell me that I still have enough sons, all so handsome,

these other ones—don’t you tell me that. He was stronger, he was the youngest,

his life was stronger than the woman’s will,

than her fear of one more mouth to feed.

Now we’re too old to fill the void.

Never be afraid. Have confidence, otherwise you get crushed…’

But when I looked over at Iacob there in the log house

I could see he no longer could hear me. His eyes stared into the distance, full of pain.

But for me, too, it was as if I could see Ali very small, ugly, with brown eyes,

or maybe blue, the bag inherited from his brothers

and his crook, following the goats. The dust covered everything,

he was hardly taller than the flock—

and he left among angels and saints clothed in light rays.”

Costandina continued talking as she sewed red silk. They remained silent.

 

And the pitchfork heaping darkness in her soul,

Iacob’s hands—springs of darkness,

his teeth luminous.

Endless water in her hearing—his hands, springs of water…

“You are dewdrops, blossoms on a drooping branch”

—and dew I was, and branch, in the image of his silence.

 

Costandina can see herself in mirrors with light flowing down her head.

She smiles. Her wet mouth, like a beast’s.

 

*

 

Lavinia’s eyes fill with colorless light, memories flit past, tamed, thorns buried in sleep.

She glides among things detached from all there is.

What kind of woman is this Mrs. Lavinia, not to mind anything…

 

Mrs. Lavinia? Oh, Mrs. Lavinia, so many wise words…

But look at her. The wind blows through her pantry

and she wears only cheap calico dresses: what use, her intelligence?

 

“Press the seams well,” Lavinia can be heard saying. “Tia has broad hips.”

On the porch, Costandina fans the iron with its sluggish coals inside—

just look, she thinks suddenly, how Mrs. Lavinia tries to bring everyone a beautifully tailored image, she wants to make them look slim, to straighten their crookedness.

Someone, a woman or a man, whichever, comes here to have new clothing made for them.

But the old clothes have shaped themselves after the body, maybe swollen, maybe crooked, sinful, distressed.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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About Adam J. Sorkin:

 

Adam J. Sorkin has published more than sixty books of Romanian poetry in translation, from Marin Sorescu, Nora Iuga, and Mihai Ursachi to Mircea Cărtărescu and Magda Cârneci and younger voices, from anthologies of Transylvanian to Bessarabian lyrics. He has received numerous awards, among them the Poetry Society (U.K.) Translation Prize, the Kenneth Rexroth Memorial Translation Prize, the Ioan Flora Translation Prize, and the Poesis Translation Prize. Six books of Ioana Ieronim’s poetry, translated into English, have come out in his joint translation with her, one of which, The Triumph of the Water Witch (Bloodaxe), was shortlisted for the Oxford-Weidenfeld Translation Prize for Translation from a European Language. Sorkin is Distinguished Professor Emeritus at Penn State Brandywine.

 

 

 

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About Ioana Ieronim

 

 

 

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