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Exquisite Corpse - A Journal of Letters and Life
Ficciones
Excerpt from My Farewells
by Panaït Istrati
translation by Ina Pfitzner

Translator's Note:

Panaït Istrati, the Gorky of the Balkans, was born in the Romanian port city of Braila in 1884. His young years of vagabondage through the Mediterranean and Middle East served as the subject matter for many of his works. Istrati worked as a socialist journalist in Bucharest and traveled to the Soviet Union, a trip from which he returned disappointed. While living in southern France, doing odd jobs, he attempted suicide. A passionate letter addressed to French writer Romain Rolland provoked his idol not only to encourage him to keep on living but also to start writing. Most of Istrati's novels were written in France between 1920 and 1929, and in the self-taught French language, including his international successes Kyra Kyralina and The Thistles of Baragan. Istrati later returned to Romania to become a hog farmer, and died there in poverty in 1934. His novels and autobiographical texts are largely based on folk tales from his homeland as well as on personal experiences. Istrati's series of autobiographical accounts of Adrien Zograffi includes My Farewells (Mes départs), written in 1928. It is now being translated into English for the first time. My Farewells consists of three sections, of which the first two are reprinted here.
     All italics and footnotes have been recreated as in the original text. This translation renders the French into English, but not the Romanian, Greek and Italian.
     Infinite thanks to Kim Svetich-Will for reviewing the text with me, for her support, courage and patience.


End of Childhood
First Steps into Life


I
Kir Leonida's Tavern

I was twelve or thirteen when, in the 'chancellery' of the primary school No. 3 in Braïla, the headmaster Mr. Moïssesco asked my mother as he was handing her my graduation certificate for the mandatory elementary school: "What are you going to do with this boy?" Exhaling with a long sigh, my poor mother responded: "Oh...Mr. Headmaster ... what can I do! He'll learn some kind of trade, or he'll find a job..." His back against the window, my good old headmaster tormented his gray goatee, rubbing it between his fingers for a while; then, staring at the floor, he said as if to himself: "Too bad..." And after a pause: "You couldn't possibly send him to high school?" "No, Mr. Headmaster: I am just a poor widow... A washerwoman for daily hire..." "That's too bad..."
     I must admit that I didn't see anything 'too bad' there: on the contrary I was happy to have finally put an end to this drudgery of my childhood.
     I didn't like school at all as I was always mediocre at it, except for one subject, Reading, where I usually received the highest grade. Mr. Moïssesco, thanks to whose kindness I completed the first four grades, liked to view me as a promising student and made me read in front of all the school inspectors.
     Then again, a good lesson to learn for those who dedicate themselves to the public school system, to this termagant that doesn't understand the soul of a child and makes it march with whiplashes to the beat of the tambourine.
     At the time, the elementary school teacher accompanied his class from the first through the fourth grade and left those who had fallen at the final exam to the hands of the next teacher. At seven, I found myself at the mercy of a barbarian, who hit us for nothing. The result: half of the class fled school. We went to the marshes where we played with sleds in the winter. Of course, I had to repeat the class and found myself with a teacher even more insane than the previous one. He pulled our ears out, struck our hands with a cane and slapped us until our noses started bleeding. Often he made us kneel down on grains of dry corn and left us in this position from noon until two, so we had to skip lunch. Almost the entire class deserted in the course of the year.
     Finally at the beginning of my third school year -- we were still studying the alphabet -- it was the headmaster's turn to take us on. I will never forget the change of tactics that occurred before our astonished eyes that day. There were no shouts or threats. Gathering us "recalcitrants" around him, Mr. Moïssesco said, sitting on a desk in the middle of the classroom: "Well then, is it true that you didn't want to study?" "No, it's not true, Sir. They hit us!" "Okay, I won't even touch you but I want you to know that if you don't study, the minister is going to fire me ... You will make me lose my job... They will say that I'm incompetent as a headmaster..." "We'll study, Sir!"
     And indeed we did study. We passed from one grade into the next until the fourth, guided by good old Mr. Moïssesco.
     May his soul be sitting right next to the Lord! Without him I would probably have ended up in a correctional facility. And the idea of going to high school for seven years, chancing upon other terrifying brutes, using my adolescence to aspire to some problematic diploma, which was useless for many who had it, didn't mean anything to me.
     On our way home my mother lamented: "My God... Perhaps it is too bad, but what can I do, the poor woman I am!" I comforted her: "Let it be, Mom ... You'll see that I'll find an employer to my liking, all by myself!"
     And I did find one... All by myself... Maybe not entirely to my liking.
     The rest of that summer I spent with my uncles Anghel and Dimi in Baldovinesti, as usual. With the one I learned to be a bar waiter. With the other I got drunk on the last glimmers of a freedom that was to fade to unforgettable memories. In the mornings when it was still cool out, Uncle Dimi would leave with his rifle to shoot the thrushes that were eating up his grapes. I would follow him furtively, like a dog afraid to be sent back home. In the evenings I would grill ears of green corn, listen to the concert of the crickets, the call of the frogs and the barking dogs. After dinner, when it was beautiful outside, I would accompany my uncle to the pastures where, watching the horses graze around us, he would smoke without stopping, chat with the other peasants and tell the hour by the position of the stars, while I lay sleeping wrapped in his gheba.
     During the day when it was scorching hot, I found refuge in Uncle Anghel's tavern, cool like a cave. I watered, swept, rinsed the glasses and learned the art of opening a tap to draw wine. My uncle watched me and said: "Well, my boy, I would like to keep you because you seem sharp but that wouldn't be wise: a child who stays with a relative becomes impudent and spoiled. Only among strangers does one learn how to become a man. But you shouldn't start working for any old bastard. Find a prosperous master. And serve him faithfully! Most of all, don't get used to pilfering; that's very bothersome in business and brings bad luck. If you feel like something sweet, go straight to your master, look him right in the eye and tell him: 'Mister Pierre, I would like to eat a cookie today!' If he gives you a penny, buy one and eat it, if not, be patient!"

***

One sad October morning, as soon as my mother had left for work, I also left, without her knowing. I made my first steps in the arena where for the poor man the battle is fierce. I was heartsick, for I felt that the splendid years of my carefree childhood had come to an end. Finished was my childhood, which had been joyful despite all the bloodshed I had seen around me, despite all the tears and my mother's raw suffering. Now I wanted to earn my own living, no longer depend on her and if possible, come back from time to time "to pour my bit into her apron."
     I had been obsessed by this idea for quite some time. When I was still in school, in winter I would often stop to watch the poor boys with their blue faces and chafed hands loitering in front of the stores, tugging customers by their sleeves, advertising their merchandise with desperate shouts. I would speak with them at length when I went grocery shopping, I knew their sufferings and thought them superior to me: "They're already working," I said to myself, "their parents must be happy they don't have to take care of them anymore. Next year I'll do what they're doing."
     That year had come. And unaware of the many sobs emerging from their chests under their dirty sackcloth aprons, I ventured bravely, almost proudly, to look for a job, to find one, and bring my mother the good news in the evening.
     This was not an adventure. I knew exactly what I wanted, and I had discovered a tavern that seemed agreeable from all points of view. First, it was a Greek tavern. (My uncle Anghel had instructed me to find a job with Greeks, "who are usually more generous than Romanians.") Second, the boss was single. (I was scared of the bosses' wives who beat the waiters and made them wash laundry that reeked of their babies.) Finally, this bar was located right next to my dear Danube!
     For nothing in the world would I have accepted a job in one of those factory outlets or one of those groceries, where the boys tear their groins from pulling half of the store's contents onto the sidewalks in the morning only to bring it back inside in the evening, and who, during the day, follow the farmers to the middle of the road to filch their skullcaps and thereby obligate them to purchase something.
     It is true that the job of a bar boy, which I had chosen, brought other troubles. Besides the disgusting dishes and the fact that the store didn't close in the evening until midnight -- and sometimes even dawn -- there was the terrible hrouba, this dank maze without air, dug "at the bottom of the earth," much dreaded by any poor waiter forced to go down there a hundred times a day for a simple glass of wine "covered with mist," which some drunkard, penny in hand, had ordered from him in front of the boss. Some people maintained that around midnight the hrouba was inhabited by ghosts, who hid among the barrels, blew out the waiter's candle and jumped him on the back. Many of those poor fellows faint. Some died of fright.
     I had heard about all those horrors but my uncle Anghel told me: "There are no ghosts! The candle goes out from lack of air. So it is important to keep the vents open, which get clogged up fairly easily as they are only holes in the ground. As for the 'mist-covered' glass, they order that only when it's hot because then there is ice. To avoid running too much, be smart: keep a big pot of wine with ice at your reach in the cave, a little delay to pretend you're running to 'the bottom of the earth;' some sparkling water to replace the pressure of the barrel, and there is your 'mist-covered' glass. But be careful; don't play this kind of trick on customers who know their way around."
     Thirty years ago Riverside Street -- which may have a different name today -- was at the end of a corridor which started at Cavalry Avenue and ended above the Danube Valley with a perpendicular overhang. Hence the name. A very busy street in the middle of the Karakioee quarter, populated mostly by Greeks famous for their joyous orgies but not frightening at all, just as the inhabitants of the Comorofca, about whom I talked in Codine.
     Karakioee attracted me because of its peaceful cheer, its cosmopolitan side: I knew it like the back of my hand; when I strolled around there, I imagined myself on the banks of the Bosporus, this fateful Eden that I wanted to get to know so ardently and of which I had forged my own image from photos and prints. Dreamy-eyed and licentious Greeks; Turks with serious faces; young, mournful women, scared for being loved too tyrannically, eternally in love, with their beautiful melancholy eyes under highly arched eyebrows, so lascivious and seductive that one wanted to forget God and adore Hell.
     On my Thursdays of frantic freedom I would spend hours roaming among the intriguing fragments of nations, who came to Braïla to make their fortune, worn out from longing for their faraway homelands, and who always end up in our sad cemeteries, twice as sad for those who die in a foreign land.
     It was there that, from my childhood on, I took in all those sensuous impressions that later served to compose the setting and atmosphere of Kyra Kyralina. It was to this quarter or to the Chetatzuiah -- which is mostly Turkish -- that the Braïlan termagant sends every young woman in love who appears too erotic: "To Karakioï and Chetatzuiah with you, strumpet, if you got the itch," she tells her. Those are the two great reservoirs of fiery love in my city. This is where I wanted to find a job to learn and to understand, without knowing why.
     Towards the middle of Riverside Street Kir Leonida's tavern was perched like an illustrious queen, famous for its wine and cuisine, looking back on forty years of heroic dinners. Founded by Barba Zanetto, Kir Leonida's father, this Greek "crasma" had watched over the founding of a thousand fortunes and helped in the failure of just as many. Zanetto himself, a great old man with a hump called Ghizourou, only talked about his past. According to him, the present, under his son's management, was only a poor copy of its former glory.
     I was going to witness these last glimpses of glamour, while living there for sixteen months and learning Greek.
     It was about eight in the morning. I entered boldly.
     Exquisite smell of casserole, the unrivaled Greek casserole, with lots of celery roots and this parsley root unknown in the West. A giant old cook, long white mustache and gaze like a cleftis. He handled the pots like a banker the bills and only gave me a brief but sufficient look. Large, clean store. On the chef's big table, next to a mountain of vegetables and meat, two boys my age were busy peeling potatoes. By the bar -- glittering with its beautiful battery of liquors and brandy -- the cashier was reading the newspaper.
     Not a single customer. No Kir Leonida, whom I knew by sight.
     I said hello. The cashier -- our famous cashier who tyrannized the children in his charge -- gauged me from above: "Whom are you looking for, young man?" "Kir Leonida." "He is not in. What do you want from him?" "I would like to talk to him." "You can talk to me." "No thanks, Sir. I'll just wait."
     The cashier took up his paper again. I left. Had I known what ferocious brute was hiding inside the skin of this heartless peasant, I would have taken to my heels and never come back.

***

I walked around for a while, worried: the tavern had two waiters already; that made four employees including the cashier and the owner. "It may very well be that they won't hire me," I said to myself. But this fear was quickly swept aside by another, entirely opposite feeling that made my blood freeze.
     I found myself by the edge of the plateau, which was very high here, and the sudden view of my friend the river violently reminded me of the nearing loss of a freedom I was about to sell. The somber sky, the sandy Danube, the forest of willows all in mourning, the ships' sirens: so many sinister cries, the rolling cars in the port: funeral knell... A soft rain was starting to fall...
     I was seized by a relentless funk. Something inside me had snapped. It seemed as if a merciless enemy was preparing to snatch me away from the world, from my mother, from life.
     Instantly, I forgot my great plan to help out my poor mother, and without further thought I ran down the slope, leaping like an ostrich to the ravine which lead to the port, where the rain forced me to take refuge in an empty freight car. There I noticed that I wasn't alone. A little girl, eight or nine years old, huddled in a corner, was mending a rip in her patched-up dress. She was a grain scavenger. Next to her she was dragging a sack with a handful of grains, a small broom and a dustpan.
     My unexpected appearance petrified her. She had stopped sewing, and fixing her eyes on me, she looked at me like a cat cornered by dogs.
     As I didn't want to upset her any more and force her out into the rain, I stood by the entrance of the car and didn't pay her any more attention. Also, her presence was nothing unusual: I was living in her milieu and, from this moment on, knew everything about the misery of children with or without a home. Yet once in a while I looked her over furtively. She had taken up her sewing again; strands of blond hair fell into her thin, dust-smeared face. Her whole body was shivering, her fingers numb.
     The rain stopped. I had only one thought: to go back home: "Back home, to Mama..."
     About to jump off the wagon, I asked the little girl: "Why are you sewing here in the cold? Don't you have anybody?" "I have my mother but she's blind... and I always rip my dress when I pick up the grains in these wagons." Then smiling faintly: "You don't pick up any?" "Uh, yes I do," I said, ashamed. And I ran, not "home", not "to Mama", but straight to Kir Leonida's tavern.
     The owner was in the store now. Freshly shaven, nicely dressed, provocative mustache, coat thrown over his shoulders; a jovial gallant of about thirty, exuberantly healthy, exuberantly wealthy.
     Standing in front of a glass, he was laughing loudly in the company of two friends. Afraid to address him in their presence, I waited outside. Soon he stepped out and noticed me: "So you were looking for me this morning?" "Yes, Mister Leonida." "What do you want?" "I would like to work here." "Work here?" he said, surprised. "And you're coming just like that, by yourself, all by yourself? Have you worked anywhere else before?" "No. I just left school." "Even better: green urchins must be brought here by the hand. How do you want me to discuss everything with you? Don't you have parents?"
     Kir Leonida -- Barba Zanetto's only treasure -- was born in Braïla, spoke a pure Romanian and kept a Hellenic pride. Although I was only a child, I sensed in him the arrogance of the Catzaouni, and well if he's Greek, I'm Greek and a half! So I told him that I was born to a Romanian mother but that my father -- who died when I was still in my cradle -- had been Greek and to be more precise: Cephalonite! "My mother doesn't know I'm here. I want to find a job with a Greek and learn the language."
     That I desired to learn Greek was just as true as I would like to learn all the languages of the world today, but as for giving preference to any nationality to the detriment or abasement of another, never at any time of my life, not even in my childhood, have I been guilty of something so contemptible: I was born a Cosmopolitan.
     Touched on his soft spot, Kir Leonida puffed himself up like a turkey: "Well, well, my friend, I will take you in and you will learn the language of your father, but I'll discuss the terms only with your mother. Bring her with you tomorrow."
     At home my "good news" launched a torrent of tears. "I sacrificed my youth to you, in suffering and widowhood, just to save you from 'the hands of strangers' and now all this was in vain; I didn't save you! May God not leave mothers like me on this earth!..."
     The following day, Sunday... dismal Sunday. We went to "knock at the stranger's door." My heart was fluttering like a bird held in hand. I felt like I was going to be buried alive. My mother, her face corpselike, seemed ready for the coffin herself.
     The explanation lies not only in the love of a mother for her offspring and in the passion of the latter for freedom; there was also this terror that makes us slaves to public opinion and that is called "the voices of the neighborhood."
     The voices of the neighborhood demand that a boy be obedient, well-behaved, that he stay where he was put without complaining and not run from one place to the next. He has to endure his master's barbarity and become a barbaric master himself. That's the opinion of the neighborhood, and it even goes so far as to claim that the master's slap in the face makes the servant's cheek grow chubbier.     
     Crossing the doorstep to Kir Leonida's tavern, my mother and I were aware of the local opinion weighing on our shoulders: once there, I would have to stay at all cost, endure everything and not shame my mother. She shouldn't have to hear about her son what "they" have said about so many others: "He left his employer again!"
     Oh those employers! And your slaves who support you in your efforts towards universal slavery!
     Generally, parents have no idea about the agony inflicted on the growing child's soul, but he -- still free from any prejudice and only listening to his instincts -- senses the abyss gaping in front of his first steps into life, revolts and develops a relentless hatred of his employer as well as his own family.
     Every child is a revolutionary. Through him, the laws of Creation are revived and walk all over everything grown-ups have set up against them: morals, prejudices, intrigues, self-interest. The child is the beginning and end of the world; only he understands life because he adapts to it, and I will not believe in a better future until the day the revolution takes place under the flag of childhood. Leaving childhood, Man turns into a monster: he denies life by becoming his own hypocritical double.
     Has humanity learned anything from the things Creation has tried to make it hear for thousands of years? Today just as in the Middle Ages and in Antiquity no constituted social body understands life, no legislation protects it; despotism and stupidity reign more than ever.
     A fragile creature, vibrant with emotions, thirsty for life, the child is still at the mercy of human beasts, ignorant and overblown with selfishness, who crush his bones as soon as he falls under their power. How would they know, those beastly miens, that a child is the beginning of a life yearning for daylight, the rustling of trees, the splashing of waves, the caressing breeze, the twittering of birds, the freedom of cats and dogs running in the street, the fragrant countryside, the snow that burns him, the sun that amazes him, the horizon that intrigues him, the infinity that floors him. How would they know that childhood is the sweetest of life's seasons and that only during that season can one lay the foundations for the human structure whose existence is precarious even in happiness? Foundations that should only consist of kindness, and kindness alone if we don't want the whole structure to tumble down into the abyss!
     And how could the basis of human life be such when the majority of humanity spends their childhood being beaten and living in deprivation, in mortification and oppressive fortresses put up by Law? Why this astonishment that the world abounds with thieves, criminals, crooks, pimps, idlers, and enemies of law and order, when your "law and order", oh Masters, is founded only on cruelties incompatible with the laws of nature?
     And you make laws -- oh you ogres of beautiful childhood! oh you pub owners, grocers, manufacturers, big landowners, as black as your souls! -- and you have academies, and moral instances, and churches preaching piety to the deafening sound of bells, and parliaments, and you don't know what the breast of a child harbors, just as you don't know anything about this life, which could be beautiful and which you mangle.

***

"So, mother, he's your little son?"
. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .
Poor Kir Leonida. Poor, you, all the Kir Leonidas of our time. How would you know what that is -- a mother and her little son? Through what miracle would you know of the worlds vibrating in a sunbeam; of the battles fought in an anthill; of the tumultuous sobs shaking the soul of a tormented mother and of the infinity sprouting in the heart of a child who gets employed?
. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .
"One hundred francs per year, a suit, a pair of shoes, a hat, a day off for Easter and another one for Christmas."
. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .
Nineteen hours a day, of toil, of running errands or standing up (from six in the morning until an hour after midnight).
Barbaric words, obscene curses, sadistic torments, countless slaps in the face.
A torrent of tears, an unexpected commotion, vanished dreams.
The desire to run away.
. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .
Is that really everything? Is there no compensation at all? No consolation? No friendly glance? Nothing to make up for this deplorable childhood?
There is too; but how!

***

First of all, no injustice: Kir Leonida himself was a kind man. Mediocre, vain, who tolerated a thousand impieties, but was really a good person. I didn't catch but one rap in the head from him in sixteen months, it wasn't a very bad one either, under quite funny circumstances that I will narrate shortly.
     But it wasn't the slaps that hurt me most.
     To begin with, it was -- and that as soon as my mother left, her face buried in her handkerchief -- the insurmountable Chinese Wall only my heart could see go up in front of Kir Leonida's tavern, separating me from the world, from the street, from this strada full of cats and dogs, from my beautiful strada flooded with light, and leaving me there in the unfriendly shop, the apron around my neck, this "master's apron", which erased all existence.
     A prison is called a prison; those locked up there know that their freedom has been taken. What does he know, the child hired to work for his master? That he is there to serve? No. He must know, and he will learn this all on his own, that besides the fatigue that even adults are spared by law, his sacred right to leave after a day's work, to walk out into the street, to become one with the night and his own thoughts, is denied him, this avid dreamer of freedom, denied him, the beginner in life.
     I watched the workers return to their homes every night, a loaf of bread under their arm, wiped out from fatigue, covered with dust or wading in mud and I said to myself: "Me too, I get up like they do, at six in the morning and I toil not until the evening, but until late after midnight: don't I, too, have the right to go home, to my bed, to my mother?"
     No. I, we, the bar boys, had to say goodbye to our mothers' loving homes and work without a break -- the equivalent of two "legal" workdays today. And if there was a break sometimes, in the afternoon or late in the evening, it was not a well-deserved rest that awaited us but the inevitable dozing while standing, which brought with it Inquisition-style tortures.
     Apart from my novitiate at dishwashing, it was my task to teach myself the contents of two hundred casks of wine, spirits, liqueurs and even oil and vinegar; to "learn the hrouba", this subterranean maze; to become familiar with dozens of different kinds of wines and alcoholic beverages so that I could recognize them later by their color and their aroma.
     I will never forget the savageness of the cashier who pushed me down all those eighty humid and mutilated steps to the little cellar and the immense hrouba, so that I wandered in the dark, afraid of breaking my neck any second. And every time I see a boy wearing an apron, I think of the inhuman ways of this vicious upstart, who thought he was "teaching" me something as he was muttering, running among the casks in complete darkness: "Numbers one, two, five, fourteen, thirty: new wines. Numbers such and such: wines one year old, two, seven, ten, twenty years old. On these casks the bungs pop out because of the 'pressure'. This wine has "taste". That one has 'shirt' or 'bloom'. Watch out, or the devil will come get you! Now, the colors: these here are the white wines, those the red ones, over there amber, Muscat, 'absinthe-wine'(1)."
     The same perfidy in the spirits storeroom: "Kirsch, Grappa, lees, mint, rum, ordinary brandy, fine brandy, pineapple, ordinary mastica, Chio mastica, etc. Draw this one only when I tell you, but if I wink, don't. Over here are the old liqueurs, those are the new ones. If you mix them up, you're in trouble.
     And if I send you to the hrouba or the storage, you have to be back 'in the time it takes a horse to fart'. If you have to pee while you're working, just turn off the faucet."
     But the torture of the wine-keeper's apprentice (one day I will describe that of the craftsman's apprentice), this terror rewarded with beatings and tears, may find its justification in the obtuse spirit of unjust people: "This will last until the skill comes in," those people claim.
     What, however, is the justification for this useless martyrdom, for this pleasure in tormenting a child staggering from fatigue and sleeplessness?
     During the whirlwind of business, when I had to stay on top of a whole avalanche of pots, pans, plates, knives, spoons, forks, fatigue and sleepiness gave way to the agitation and speed necessary to manage to satisfy everyone, if I didn't want to be hit by the boss, by the cashier or by crazy Barba Zanetto. The latter was ready to throw a plate in our faces anytime. But in the afternoon or evening when everything calmed down again, it was the time of pitiless slumbers standing up, when thousands of needles would tingle in our arteries, and our bodies, heavy as lead, were about to collapse. Our masters, however, were allowed to go and lie down or sit down on a chair. But we were not allowed to relax. We were made of steel, wood, stone.
     "Smirna"! Straight as capital I's we kept our eyes and ears pointed towards the cashier, who only waited for us to make a mistake, and also towards two or three drunkards, "the pillars of the bistro," who could mobilize us for nothing at any time. And too bad for the one of us who closed his lids, heavy with sleep! A blow to the nose as violent as an electric shock would promptly hit the "wrong-doer" and wake him up with a start while those good-for-nothings laughed mercilessly. That was the mildest joke on the part of the "Hick" as my buddies called the cashier. Even though this "teasing" would sometimes make our noses bleed.
     Often while we were nodding off, this wretched man would take advantage of the position of a sleeping arm as our bodies happened to lean against a piece of furniture, "to do the diligence", i.e. he would put a slip of paper between our fingers and light it, causing us some severe burns. Or else, watching us teeter on our legs almost falling down, he would help with a brusque blow to the back of the knee. We fell down on the spot. There were also squirts in the face with the siphon-bottle and the famous itching powder on the nape of our necks, which had us peeling our skin off for hours.
     All these nerve-wracking barbarities amused the Hick and his onlookers. Kir Leonida didn't see any of this or just looked the other way. And if it so happened that one of us kicked up or started to cry, well, that was even worse: crude curses, slaps in the face, kicks, useless drudgeries hailed down on us. The cashier would suddenly discover that the hrouba, the patio and the warehouse needed sweeping, the latrine needed scrubbing, the windows needed to be washed, the barrels needed to be scalded and transferred, firewood needed to be sawed.
     That was our Reward for Labor. We squandered our childhood serving entire bands of gluttonous night owls and drunkards; we stumbled around from dawn till after midnight; slaps to wake us up, slaps to send us to bed. There were Sundays and holidays, festive people who were walking around outside, and who came to us to feast at the sound of violins. There existed a world with a sun, with rivers, forests, joys overflowing; we didn't exist for anyone, nothing existed for us. We were something like a drinking glass or a fork: who pays attention to these utensils? Who wonders what becomes of them after use? What eye takes the time to look at the waiter in a tavern?
     And yet...

***

From the first day on -- when I was still nothing more than some dirty boy moaning over a washing tub filthy enough to make one throw up -- there was a water carrier, a sacagiou, a ragged fellow, who noticed me right away as he was drinking his daily ten "drops."
     "All right!" he said to Kir Leonida, looking me up and down. "You got a recruit?"
     And his gaze went straight to my heart, without my knowing why. From then on, I was upset whenever he left; I was glad when he returned. And how I would have loved to serve him his little glass myself, had it not been forbidden.
     He was quite seriously called Mosh Cazatoura, which means Father Ruin -- not a very flattering name for this estimable, courteous, polite man who barely spoke and who knew a lot. He was really quite respected, but for a special reason. A strange reason. Barba Zanetto and Kir Leonida showered him with niceties, called him "the customer with the lucky hand", the one who "had the best safteya". And the safteya, meaning the first penny a customer tosses on the counter when the store opens in the morning, that is a big deal in the East. The return for the entire day depends on this safteya: if the man has "a lucky hand" everything goes well, if not the day is going to be slow. That's why they shout, in verse: "Safteya sâ nu mai steya", the safteya that doesn't stop. May the pennies roll without stopping.
     And the owner takes this lucky penny, rubs it well on his beard, tosses it noisily into the drawer, fills two glasses and drinks to "good safteya" with the customer. "Good luck to everybody!" they shout in unison.
     Mosh Cazatoura, arriving first thing early in the morning, always had his first glass for free but he didn't care that much. Gravely, almost solemnly, slightly ridiculous in his tattered clothes, his whip on his arm, he would always ask first if he was really the first customer and, when answered affirmatively, would launch his safteya penny with vigor. He firmly believed in it, valued it and bestowed it upon all the bar owners he found "comme il faut."
     Sometimes -- in the absence of Barba Zanetto, who was rarely missing -- Kir Leonida would make fun of the solemn sacagiou and say to him, exaggerating the effect of the safteya penny: "Listen, Mosh Cazatoura: rub the coin first on the fly of your pants. They say that brings even more luck to the business." "The fly of my pants? That wouldn't be worth it anymore, Kir Leonida. It's all over." This "it's all over" came up often in his brief conversations and sounded sad.     
     I loved him for that.
     I also loved him because he was grieved: in his previous life as a peasant, a blow from the horns of a cow had caved in his nose and altered the timbre of his voice, which was now nasal and movingly heart-rending. This is why he spoke as little as possible. Always reserved, always ready to step back when someone walked by, he slid like a shadow among the crowd of our boisterous night owls, for whom he was only a sacagiou. And yet, I had heard decent people say that he had once owned property in the country and had even been the mayor of his village. Did his frequent "it's all over" refer to this past, to this quite real wealth?
     What touched me most of all was this sacagiou's love for his animal, a poor old mare whose eyes were completely covered with a thick cataract. (I always wanted to stab the barbarian coachmen from Braïla who mistreated their animals; and in my youth, I would have gladly become a policeman only to lock up all those -- and there were many of them -- who beat their horses or simply forgot about them waiting out in front of the bar.)
     "She is ruined like me," said Father Ruin to us, "and blind on top of it. I bought her for twenty Francs. I'm not worth any more than that. But we like each other a lot, my old lady and I."
     This was quite obvious. He only sat on his water barrel when it was empty and only when he was in a hurry. Three quarters of the time, he led his mare by her bridle at a walking pace. When he stopped to fill up or empty his barrel or to drink a glass, he never failed to give her the nosebag with oats, to cover her, rub her eyes and pull her ears, which relaxed the animal. The mare, delighted, happy to feel spoiled in her old age after having been tortured for a long time, nibbled her master like a dog, dried her eyes on his shoulders and searched for him long with her dreadful gaze. Sometimes she would even neigh when she missed him. "I'm coming, here I am!" Mosh Cazatoura would reply tenderly.
     The sacagiou's lucky mare! Only she could have told us how grateful she was to her master, she who certainly thought of her noble congeners ridden by haidoucs, of whom the following folk song speaks, which even the callous West may hear:

"My roan, my little horse,
Why do you breathe so hard?
Is it my body that burdens you so?"
"It's not your body that's heavy,
but your inveterate vice;
there is not one bar on your way
where you don't stop!
You drink there with your lovers,
while I chomp the bit!
You caress them in your bed,
while I am tied up to the fence."

     So it was from this man that I heard my first comforting words. He often saw me cry, my cheeks just slapped by the Hick. One day when we were alone, he said to me stroking my head: "Don't despair. You are just a child. You have your whole life in front of you. Leave if you are heartsick, go someplace else, change, run around the earth. But always hope for the best. You can still do it. When one can't hope anymore, well, that's when it's all over.
     "Look at me: I wasn't always a sacagiou. I used to be a man, too. I would give advice to my peers, let's not say orders, and they respected me, all of them, from the smallest to the greatest. So everything was going well. But one day, a poor sick animal hit me and made me look hideous to the eyes of others and my own. From that day on, my heart was rotting, I didn't feel like anything anymore and it was all over! ... Beware of despair. You are just a child."

***

This was a nice gleam of light, the first. A second one was to follow soon.
     For three days while I was substituting for the boy who took orders and managed the deliveries in the neighborhood, I had the pleasure of revisiting the luminous street a little bit, the city, the people, from whom I had been separated, and to run into a passionate soul who showered me with affection. This is a very muddled, almost unreal memory, a mixture of dream and sensuous certainty, like a violent desire.
     In a sunny courtyard carpeted with a thick layer of leaves, some Greek women were chatting indolently, meridional cats languid from a generous, magnificent autumn. One of them, tall, young, beautiful figure and quite convivial, got up as I approached and exclaimed: "Ah, there you are. Are you the little unhappy Cephalonite at Kir Leonida's? Well! I'll comfort you. I am a Cephalonite myself. Come here, let me kiss you."
     And without much ado she wrapped herself around me, hugged me, made me sit on her lap and covered me with kisses that burned my face and made me dizzy. The other women came to ask me all at the same time: "Who was your father? Where from? What's his trade? How old? When did he die? From what kind of illness?"
     I listened, half asleep. I didn't know what to respond. I was numb, hallucinating. Under my half-closed eyes I saw several hands holding mine, but those of the Cephalonite sliding over my cheeks dazed me. I could barely breathe.
     This first day of light and of unknown happiness, I paid for it dearly because I messed up the orders and received a copious thrashing from the Hick.
     The next morning, the same caresses, the same torpor, the same hallucination. Even more blunders and even more slaps but that didn't bother me at all: they were beating up a somnambulist. I was happy.
     I was happy the third day too and got lost in my beatitude without worrying about anything. And that was it: "This boy is an idiot," screamed the cashier.
     And the trapdoor fell down on me again. I was not to see the street again for long months, only from the doorstep of the shop. I lived on dreams. Singing, carousals, formidable blowouts, all-nighters, a hundred trips to the basement a day, mountains of dirty dishes. All this became habitual, made me dull.
     I remember a Greek verse, sung and danced during those days of happy sadness. Since the majority of the Greeks were named Yani, all the Yanis present took each other by the hand and danced a crazy round, singing these first Greek words I registered in my memory:

Saranda pente Yannides
ehnos kokkorou gnosi.
Ki'ehna poolaki takoosseh
pigheh na palavossee.

Which means: forty-five Yanis barely have the brain of a rooster. A little bird which heard about this almost lost her mind from the surprise.
     Everybody was laughing. I dared to laugh too with everybody else and was in for another beating.
     It was again the dizziness caused by the memory of the Cephalonite's caresses that earned me the slap in the face from Kir Leonida.
     One evening I had just finished serving a young, elegant man, who had chosen one of the private rooms opening toward the courtyard for dinner. That seemed strange to the owner: "Watch out! This guy may slip away through the garden gate without paying his check!" he said to me.
     He had told me, true, but I was thinking of the beautiful Cephalonite and the "gentleman in the private room" tricked me: having eaten and drunk well, having asked for cigarettes and the check, he also wanted some change for his pocket. That was the end of the two of us.
     The balance was three francs and some pennies. "Bring me change for five francs!" he said gravely without giving me his coin.
     I went to find Kir Leonida, who grumbled into his beard and gave me the money but kept lying in wait. I didn't suspect anything. I was elsewhere in my thoughts. "Come quick and bring me a stamp," shouted the trickster when I brought him the change.
     So of course I hurried away, but in the dark shade of the courtyard I ran straight into Kir Leonida, and he slapped me.
     Ouch! The customers gathered to watch this "performance" laughed a lot that evening; and I cried out of rage at being beaten by my employer, but the "nice gentleman" didn't have anyone laughing on his side either.
     After the hoos and the kick in that fellow's buttocks, Kir Leonida shook me firmly: "Are you in love by any chance?" he yelled.
     This is when I saw a man come out from among all the people there, put his hand on the shoulder of the owner, saying: "Leonida, you shouldn't act like your cashier."
     This man was "Captain" Mavromati, whose story I'm relating here:
 
II
Captain Mavromati


After my first few weeks of anxiety and complaints, I noticed a man -- whom I first took for a customer -- who would enter the pub when it opened in the morning and wouldn't leave until midnight. During this endless time, eighteen hours, he would sit in his chair quietly, somewhat separately, would sometimes get up to pick up some plates from the table or to fold a tablecloth, stir the embers on the grill, sweep a little here a little there. He did all this slowly, distractedly, like a pastime and would quickly return to his chair as soon as a terrible cough, from which he seemed to suffer, surprised him in the middle of his complacent chores.
     He was a man of advanced age, although he didn't really look it, perhaps because he was well-groomed. However, his distress was obvious: shabby overcoat, patched-up shoes and pants, a scruffy scarf to cover up that the button-on collar was missing. But his cap, a handsome Greek sailor's cap, which he wore proudly and with dignity, redeemed him and made him look striking despite his rumpled looks. He treated it with infinite respect, stroked it affectionately, and prudently put it aside whenever we were cleaning. This proud cap as well as his beautiful, carefully combed gray mustache and beard occupied him the whole time, were the center of his life. He didn't see the rest and thereby obliged everyone else to not pay it any attention either. Under his shaggy eyebrows, a fiery gaze was constantly searching the distance!
     I had never seen anyone like him. And what was happening to him was so curious to me that I couldn't take my eyes off him anymore.
     At first, judging by his rapport with my employers, I took him for a respectable relative. In fact, on arriving in the morning Barba Zanetto would never fail to go straight to him, to shake his hand with friendly courteousness and say: "Good morning", in the plural: "Kalimerassass, Captain Mavromati!"
     And all at once, face to face, cigarette in one hand, Turkish coffee in the other, they would fall into a passionate gibberish which lasted for about an hour and of which I didn't understand a word. I said to myself, seeing the good man catch fire like a palikar: "He was the captain of a ship... And his name is Mavromati. What did he do to fall so low, the poor man?"
     But soon I noticed that Kir Leonida's tavern was full with "captains", on the long haul: "Captain Valsamis", "Captain Papas", "Captain Smirniotis", captains all the time and everywhere. Rarely did two customers shake hands without calling each other "Captain". I was surprised that there should be so many officers in Kir Leonida's inn and I tried hard to make out sailors, too, but in vain.
     Later I understood, to be called a "captain" in the Karakioï of Braïla, it was not at all necessary to command a ship or a tugboat, not even a caique or a barge, but it was enough to reign over a rowboat: any Greek living on the water is a captain.
     Those captains, braggarts, spendthrifts, wheedlers recognized one another admirably and appreciated as much as detested one another. The commanders of true ships, who visited us at long intervals, were not very loquacious, and scarce with gestures. To enjoy themselves discreetly, they would lock themselves in the back of the store reserved to VIP customers. And when the string of sauerkraut captains discovered them and attacked them with "professional" questions, a mocking smile would slip across their coppery faces, although they gazed with friendly and kind eyes at their "colleagues" and all their enthusiastic nonsense.
     Even before I learned their language and knew what they were saying, I managed to tell them apart, just by the way they behaved towards one another. One barely heard anything from the real captains even when the barcadjis bored them with "captain" here and "captain" there, and only waited for the first occasion to get rid of the bores.
     On the other hand, I never saw them make fun of Captain Mavromati, as inexplicable as that was in my eyes. They eagerly shook his hand, sincerely called him captain, and invited him to their table. The old man was a beautiful sight when this happened. With those people, Mavromati would speak loudly, from equal to equal, he would straighten himself brusquely like a judiciary, he would thunder, curse and gesture, red with anger, but it always ended in suffocating coughs, and with a slam of the door, he would run hastily to his chair, gasping for air, worn out. I didn't understand what was causing these fits. His black eyes would launch fire and flames. His beard would tremble. And exactly in those moments -- as if to alleviate their own humiliation -- the plethora of boatmen, who had never seen the sea, would scoff at him cruelly: "Again! Tee eeneh moreh? (What's up?) Those mean capitanios! They sank your vapori!"
     Reduced to a beggar, Mavromati still remained their superior, and it bothered them. This donkey's kick upset me very much, but the old man didn't mind. His head between his hands he would cough until the end of the attack, then get up with dignity, adjust his cap, comb his mustache and beard and start pacing through the store, hands behind his back, nose up in the air, forehead high, like a captain on the bridge.
     The boss served him the meals he pointed at with his finger and the cashier would bring him his bottle of wine. Mavromati would eat and drink in his little corner, all alone, like a poor relative. It was humiliating, but not for him: completely lost in thought, he would gaze out onto the street, into the void, as if he was at sea.
     I never saw him take a penny out of his pocket, nor put one there.
     I didn't understand a thing.

***

After a month of working in the tavern, I began to see things clearly. The Hick hated poor Mavromati to death and rallied us against him too. He claimed that the captain was the eyes of the owner, who fed him so that he would spy on us. "On me, spy on me?" I said to myself. "And what would he tell him about me? That I do the dishes, run to the basement, trip from fatigue and get beaten?"
     That coward, he wanted to ruin life for him, chase him away, not directly but using us.
     I didn't join this conspiracy. Besides, no camaraderie whatsoever linked me to the cashier, not any more than to my two colleagues. They belonged, all three of them, to the same low species of humans, who tattled on each other to please the strongest one and who tattled on me too.
     My fault, my weak point was that I would read in secret and draw up sheets covered with Greek words (exactly the same system of sheets I was to take up again in Switzerland twenty years later, to learn French).
     On quiet afternoons when there were no tables or floors to scrub, at the hour when flies buzz around and wine evaporates in the glasses, when the Hick wandered off to his lover and my comrades in misery set their wits to works and pitched pepper in the snuff box of the slumbering captain, I myself would pitch dozens of Greek words into my skull and sensuous new ones would come my way via the daily newspaper, which I was beginning to take in my hands for the first time. I was becoming acquainted with a language that held an irresistible attraction for me, the language of my father, and I was discovering a world thanks to a miraculous sheet of paper, folded in two, which knew everything: it taught me that ministers governed my country; that there were deputies who made laws and argued like our barcadjis; that a certain Filipesco had killed his adversary Lahovary with a saber; that the Greeks were fighting against the Turks, the Boors against the English, and the Spaniards against the Americans; that there was a "Dreyfus affair" and that in this affair a novelist named Zola had set France on fire. I learned that on the entire earth, men were killing one another or committing suicide out of misery or out of passion. And I learned most of all that I didn't know my own language! There were lots of words I didn't know at all, for I had never heard them pronounced or seen them in my schoolbooks.
     This revelation exasperated me: how could I not understand a Romanian text? What could I do? Whom could I ask?
     I often asked Mavromati to translate, for better or for worse, the Greek words I picked up around me, but to ask him to teach me my mother tongue seemed a shame: he was the foreigner and I was the native, fresh from school!
     And there was no one whom I could have asked this favor. Greeks or Romanians, Kir Leonida's customers presented themselves as people without a heart, greedy for a good meal, indifferent to our suffering. Those people were my enemies. I was happy when they didn't show up and I would have gladly sent them to hell, for few were those who would pay attention to the hell this poor devil was in, up on his feet from dawn till midnight.
     Only Captain Mavromati, always nearby, would often hear me moan. Since I had always been respectful toward him, he took interest in me: "Your legs are hurting, moreh Panagaki! Oh! Kaimeni psychi-mou! The world is a barbarous place!"
     Few emotions move the soul as much as compassion. The turbulence and torment I suspected in the heart of the former ship commander brought out pity in me and silenced my own moans.
     The life of a dishwasher with chafed hands, of a cellar boy with tired legs; the impossible life of a bar waiter who has to endure all the suffering and receives all the brutalities, this life of a recluse was becoming unbearable for me. And so I directed my eyes and my heart toward the person the riffraff called the pillar of the saloon and the eyes of the master.
     From that day on my comrades in misery, following the example of the cashier, would burn his hands with the diligence game, make him snuff pepper, pour water into his pockets or sprinkle itching powder on him, and I, the weakest of them all, took up the defense for this insulted, defeated man, alerted him to the tricks they plotted against him, argued with the other boys and allowed the Hick to beat me up. So we formed two unequal, opposing camps. The cashier was less strict with his flatterers and promised to do everything to see that I was kicked out. All three of them, full-blooded Romanians, called me the "Catzaouni" (derogatory for Greek). And instead of relaxing our bones when we were alone, my own coworkers were always ready for a fight now. Sometimes we would even fist fight.
     But fighting is also a sign of vitality if you develop a taste for it. Fighting for an idea, for an emotion, for a passion or a tomfoolery, but believing in something and fighting for it, that's life. Those who don't feel the need to fight, don't live but vegetate.
     In the beginning, I had vegetated too. For a few weeks, annihilated by the void the denial of my freedom had carved into my heart, I had only languished and dreamed of disappearing among the bunch of railroad car sweepers, to live freely with a flock of children without a God and without a home. But as soon as I wanted to act on this plan, the saintly figure of my mother appeared to me, who would have died of sorrow upon seeing me descend to the scum of vagabonding children. And so I gave up on the idea.
     This tumult, had it continued, would certainly have driven me to some act of desperation.
     But here comes a newspaper, the kind you find anywhere, it falls into my hands and tells me unsuspected truths. Thirsty for knowledge I guzzled those news items down. Neologisms gave me something to chew on. At the same time, the first fragments of conversation in Greek resounded clearly in my ears. I put them on paper. The desire to make phrases out of them made me gaze into the eyes of Captain Mavromati, the pillar of the inn, eyes full of the horizon.
     That's when I realized that this pillar was but a human wreck, tramped down by the man I detested more than anything: the cashier. Indignation flared up in me. Mavromati, kindly and peaceable, silently suffered the hostilities of all those rogues. Why did the Hick resent him? What was the old man spying om? Everyone knew that the cashier entertained, in the face of Kir Leonida, a mistress everyone called "the baker woman" and with whom he could be seen any free minute.
     Weren't there dubious things going on with this woman?
     So I started to watch out and surprised him as he was carting old wines and expensive liquors off to her place at night, roasts, chickens, eggs, and other things.
     Now I got him! He wanted to have me kicked out. But I had developed a taste for staying. I forgot all my sorrows. A pleasant field of activity opened up to me: the desire for revenge, the thirst to read, the occasion to learn a foreign language, the need to love someone even less fortunate than I.
     I woke up as if from a nightmare. Life started to have meaning. And from one day to another, the way I viewed the tavern had changed!

***

"Captain Mavromati, what do you think this could mean: intrinsic?" I asked one afternoon, showing him the paper. "I don't know myself, moreh. But there is a 'biblio' that knows the entire Romanian language."
     
What is this "Bible" enclosing "the whole Romanian language", I asked myself, intrigued for days, when to my great amazement the captain showed up one morning with the book under his arm and put it into my hands: "Oriste, Panaïotaki! I give it to you as a gift: this knows more than the most 'spoodevmenos' (erudite) dascalos."
     I took the "Bible" and read: Dictionar Universal al Limbei Romane, de Lazar Seineanu (the same Seineanu who, besides H. Tiktin and Dr. Gaster, is one of the three Jewish professors to whom Romania owes the foundations of her philology: all three of them were expatriated against their will; all three of them still continue today -- the first in Paris, the second in Berlin, the third in London-- to gloriously till the soil, until then unappreciated and unknown, of our national folklore in order to present it to the scholarship of the world.)
     I didn't understand at once what the words Universal Dictionary meant; but leafing through it randomly, my cheeks flushed with pleasure: scientific terms and neologisms I had come across in the papers and which I had been sorry to skip over, here they were made clear for me. The few expressions that began to make sense immediately got my intelligence going, brought relief to my brain and joy to my heart.
     We were alone. The captain was watching me, his face lit up. Speechless with joy, I took his right hand and kissed it with the appreciation of a son, then ran to my bed and hid the volume under my pillow, well concealed in a stack of linens.
     From then on, this sacred "Bible" of my youth -- the prayer book I held on to for ten years and which I saved through all disasters -- was to accompany me on all my bloodied paths and often was to become, during the existence of this tormented child, my only source of spiritual happiness. How many times, shivering in my bed for hours, did I have to confront the cold and get up to fetch my dictionary from wherever I had negligently left it; I just couldn't skip over an unknown word anymore!
     No more blues! At Kir Leonida's no fatigue, no brutality, no gloomy thoughts; nothing could change my decision to work and to bear life. A ruined man had put a treasure in my hands: each page contained a world of knowledge; each word opened open up horizons I had barely known existed. And then the marvelous discovery I had made all by myself -- that the words were organized in strictly alphabetical order, stirring in me the ambition to find the exact location of the word I was looking for, without searching, at the first try! Often the surprises my "Bible" held for me were stronger than the need to find a specific word, and so I would completely forget about the word, about my reading, and the tavern with its infamies and the scarcely measured time, and in a passionate succession I would float from one page to the next, from one science to another science, from one philosophy to another philosophy, from one halfway familiar historical event to another one I had no idea about, from one biography, which left me dumbfounded to another one which moved me to tears, incessantly sent from the beginning of the volume to its end and from the middle to either cover. Curtailing my hours of sleep while my comrades were snoring in their beds, I crammed in all this voluptuous knowledge, a lit candle underneath an open umbrella, which I covered with my clothes to be most careful. Curled up, my nose in front of the little smoky candle, I changed universes every minute, until the door flung open as if from a gust of wind, and the Hick, pounding me with his fists, destroyed my elaborate installation and threw me to the floor: "Damn the whore who put you on earth! Sleep, damn it! Sleep, you have to work tomorrow!"
     But I didn't care! His blows didn't scare me anymore. I had only one concern: hiding my "Bible"! I would fall asleep, with my head on the dictionary, as I used to on the knees of my mother. And the next day, I would start over once again, covering the window as carefully as possible.
     This limitless joy had an immediate physical effect: I put on weight! My muscles became hard as rocks, my cheeks flushed with blood. I ate and drank well. Dishes, plates, pots, tables, floors, doors, windows became an easy game for me. My little adversaries, whom I really didn't hate, by the way, couldn't stand up to me anymore, neither in argument nor in fighting. Even better, one day, furious that the Hick had tripped me, I hit him right in the chest with the dustpan I had in my hand, and went to complain to Kir Leonida, who took my side. So I began to elbow my way through, and make room for myself.
     On the other hand, my mother was happy about seeing me strong and jolly. She would come every Saturday night to bring me clean laundry and would stay, with the permission of the master, for an hour to chat with me. Sometimes she would discover a bruise on my face; my poor mother would get so upset about it as if I were going to die. "Who hit you like that? Do they beat you here?" "Why no, Mom! I bruised myself in the basement, when I went down without a candle!"
     And I called Captain Mavromati, of whom I had told her with enthusiasm. My mother, after eight years of living with my father, spoke Greek fairly well and the last few times never failed to invite the captain into our conversations, thanking him for the sympathy he had for me and talking with him for a long time.
     Strange thing: conversing with my mother, Mavromati got all worked up, just as when he talked with the ship commanders; one might have said that he was actually cursing someone. Anxious to know what was going on, I interrupted their conversation. "What is up with the Captain, Mom? With whom is he angry? Why?" "Oh, sweetie. These are big people's stories! Human miseries! He's telling me about the man he used to be: his home, his wife, his ship. And it seems that his friends put him in this situation."
     "Yes, moreh pedakee!" he would scream, his eyes filled with hatred: "I have not always been wretched like this! I was captain on my vaporia for twenty years! And my friends took my wife and vaporia and everything and left me only the shirt on my back! Oh! afilotimi! pezevenghis! Khrima more Khrima!"
     
And standing up, pale, trembling, he would pace the entire room, until his violent coughing put an end to his fit of anger. My mother would leave, shaking her head. I was always melancholy when she left, especially after encounters like this where Mavromati allowed me a glimpse into some of his mysterious past. I went back to my toil and my forbidden pleasures. He returned to his seat and to the Calvary of his unknown torments.
     And the months passed ... Christmas brought a day of freedom for me -- in a temperate and cozy home, meals my mother prepared and caresses she lavished on me -- a day as short as the luminous fall of a shooting star on a summer night.
     For the Captain, winter brought sufferings, endless inquisitorial tortures: the stuffy tavern, hermetically closed against the cold wind and full of unemployed who took turns tormenting him, using the same old tricks and one newly invented by the relentless Hick: the terrible trick where red pimento was burned on the stove and caused an asphyxiating smoke that made us all run out into the snowstorm. The miscreants themselves coughed while they were chuckling. Good old Mavromati spat out his lungs.
     I was going to make the cashier pay dearly for this last ignominy but my time hadn't come yet.

***

It seems hard to believe that a servant -- even if he was the almighty cashier -- but still nothing more than a servant, caught red-handed by us and suspected by the whole neighborhood and the owner himself, could terrorize some subaltern children and a sick old man at his leisure, without any of his victims having the courage to denounce him. And yet, that's how it was: an established authority assumes a limitless power in the eyes of the weak ones, who are subordinate to it and put up with it. Hence the inconceivable patience of people toward the heinous crimes committed by tyrants: it is not some particular moral value held by the oppressors that gives them the strength to rule the world but simply the cowardice of the oppressed.
     It was the same situation in Kir Leonida' tavern. Our true master was the cashier, a country brute similar to the corporals in the barracks who beat their brothers to death as soon as they see two woolen stripes on their overcoats.
     At the time, Kir Leonida had just opened a factory for soda and mineral waters, a few yards away from the inn. And in the neighborhood, brick-layers and other craftsmen worked for him to restore run-down apartment buildings. None of these projects were going well: in the factory the machines were running defectively, injuring workers and causing damage; in the apartment buildings unskilled and poorly paid men without supervision reconstructed the next day what they had built the day before. Kir Leonida and Barba Zanetto, bewildered, ran back and forth between their failing enterprises.
     Great times for the Hick, who reigned over the tavern like a pasha, stole a lot, entertained his mistress and martyred the weak ones to make up for the thousand years of servitude he had in his blood, waiting for the day when, with a nice round sum of money, he would open up his own inn, even more beautiful than the one where he had served with faith and honesty for long years!
     
But there you go... It sometimes so happens that just when one says: that's it! it is not it at all. This was to happen, in spite of us, to the one who made life tough for an old asthmatic and some innocent children.
     The Captain had known Demetrius, the cashier, since the day his father had brought him by the hand and introduced him to Barba Zanetto twelve years before. He had seen him arrive, snotty, frowning, dressed in rags, wearing sandals, underhanded, a boy whose head you had to lift up by his chin if you wanted to see his eyes that were constantly fixated on the floor. And it was the same Captain Mavromati who comforted him with his protection, taught him how to use a fork, defended him against other Hicks and taught him the Greek language, which he still completely butchered.
     Since then, this eternal Dinu Paturica of universal upstartism had instinctively followed the path the great Romanian writer Nicolaï Filimon had laid out for his distinctly and immortal prototype a century ago: he licked the hand he couldn't bite and became indispensable, then shedding all timidity, raised his head to look at the world with his viper's eyes and set out to destroy all those he took for obstacles on his path to fortune. For him Captain Mavromati turned from being a benefactor into being the eyes of the owner, and the boys he suspected wanted to stay in the tavern forever and learn Greek to replace him were considered rivals he had to chase away before they could take root: no one could stay longer than a year at Kir Leonida's.
     This way Barba Zanetto and later his son willy-nilly had to keep the only servant who knew the customers, the drinks, the customs of the house and the Greek language, which was an absolute must in this neighborhood.
     But I was to shake the reign of the Hick to its foundations.
     Six months after I had started my employment and thanks to the kindness of the Captain and my own studiousness, I knew Greek much better than our tyrant, which threw him into the most ridiculous fits of fury. Immediately the sympathies of all the serious customers surrounded me, who would only speak Greek with me and ask the owner to have me serve them myself. Kir Leonida agreed and let me come out from the dishes to move me into the restaurant. Farewell scalding dishwater and chafed hands! Farewell, partially, relentless hrouba with your eighty steps!
     Properly dressed, my apron as white as snow, nicely combed hair, I was to respond, with a stentorian voice: Amessoss! Erhete! Oriste Kyrie! to all our Greek customers, who called me while noisily rapping on tables and plates.
     Most of all I had to show the necessary talents: memory, prudence, adroitness, swiftness, circumspection. I tried my best and managed to please everyone, except the Hick of course, who couldn't believe his eyes.
     My new status made Captain Mavromati as happy as if I were his own son, and my mother cried tears of joy.
     That wasn't all. They say that misfortunes never come singly. I believe that luck also gets doubled sometimes; if not, life would be unbearable.
     Another of the Hick's cruelties had changed my situation once more and made it almost ideal: having caught my two comrades as they were drinking liquor, the ferocious cashier had beaten them till they started bleeding. As soon as he let go of them, the unlucky boys fled to never come back; and until their replacements arrived and were worked in, I had to do part of the chores the fugitives had abandoned. Naturally they gave me some good ones and some bad ones.
     Well -- besides the exhaustion caused by the cellar and the heavy basket of supplies which crushed my shoulders when I returned from the market -- I experienced the happiness of going out into the city, of living outside again and most of all of wandering around in this Karakioï that overlooked the Danube and which I had yearned to see again just as a convict sighs for his freedom.
     From October till April, during six months of reclusion, I had revisited my dear Danube only one single time, at Christmas. And that although in the winter I just loved to give way to my melancholy above this endless white ribbon, turned to stone by the ice or its many floes in a gigantic revolt!
     It is easy to imagine the compensations I needed to find in my friendship with the Captain and in the marvelous "Bible" to resist these nostalgic feelings.

***

Now, all of a sudden I woke up a free person: a freedom dearly paid for but all the more savory.
     In the mornings between nine and ten, I had to run through the quarter with the daily menu and take orders from the regulars; then between eleven and noon, I had to deliver the meals they had ordered. Same thing in the evening. Four hours of roaming a day, four hours of inebriation, for my eyes, my ears, my senses! Acacias, bending under the dazzling weight of their buds; trees trembling with the concert of their singing visitors; streets swept by the wind, washed by the rain, filled with mischievous dogs and cats; large windows opened to the sunlight and decorated with flowerpots; courtyards with women in love, singing or scolding their brats. But most of all the Danube revealed itself to my eyes from amazing angles I had not seen before -- the eternal Danube of thousands of years of childhood!
     And as I kept this job until the end of my employment with Kir Leonida, oftentimes Captain Mavromati would accompany me on my exhilarating errands and tell me, in his own language, some thing or other from his former life. I will relate this here in one piece as it has stayed in my memory, which is that of the heart only:
     "I was born on the water, and I never thought that I could live or die anywhere else but on the water. My father had his caravel on the Aegean Sea; he kept his family with him; together we knew the peace and the sorrows of the sailor's life. After my parents' death, I myself became the commander of the caravel, at the price of wrongdoings and injustices I heartlessly committed to the detriment of my brother and my sister, both of them of very young age. Oh well! Perhaps I'm paying for it today! If in my old age they insult and torment me -- if they burn my hands and my nose, if they pour water into my pockets and if they suffocate me with pimento smoke -- it's perhaps because I have to atone for my injustices from that time.
     That's why, as the Romanians say, I swallow it and keep silent. I could have the cashier thrown into prison anytime because he has stolen and he's still stealing, not drinks and chickens but thousands of francs! And I still keep silent. Why would I denounce him? Who doesn't steal? Have I not stolen? Zanetto, has he not stolen? Everybody steals, everybody who can! No one can build themselves a caravel or a mineral water plant with their two hands!
     And what would I gain if I did my rich friends this favor? To Leonida, I would still be the same wretched Mavromati. He forgets that he woke up as the heir of a big fortune largely because of me: it was me who pulled his father out of servitude, and it was me who gave him the money to open his own inn in Braïla, where I came with my caravel and saw that there was "bread to eat". We left real fortunes in Zanetto's tavern, my friends and I!
     Oh I'm telling you, friends. Friendship! I don't curse them but what crimes we are capable of, all while being friends and cherishing friendship!"
. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .
     "I was young... Ambitious... I wanted a cargo boat... Enough of the caravel! No more sails... My own ship... To rip through the sea from the Levant to Gibraltar and to the Ocean. A banker from Piraeus, a childhood friend, lent me the amount I was lacking after I had sold my caravel, and there I was, 'commander of my own steamer!'
     Well, I lost my head! I thought that I owned the world! Orgies, generosities and braggadocio, which lifted me up to the clouds and made me forget that I had debts to pay off too: 'Bravo, Mavromati!' 'Zito, Mavromati!' 'Hurrah, Mavromati!' 'Na-se-hes-so, Mavromati!
     I had a Spanish wife, who didn't want to come onboard the freighter, even less than my mother on the caravel and I found out why: it was easier for her to go to bed with my friend, the banker! There she wasn't afraid of the storm! Oh, one should never have banker friends!
One day we pulled each other's handsome beards out ... I pawned the freighter, paid back my debts and took back my wife. I should have just left her with him and not paid anything because I was to lose her later anyway, her and with her the ship!
     A woman, moreh Panaghi is like the sun: one mustn't go too far away but one shouldn't get too close to her either. At any rate one can't have a woman and a ship at the same time: one of the two is bound to ground you!
. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .
     After my double shipwreck, without sincere affection and without my thundering Mavri Thalassa, I thought of Zanetto, whom I had made rich. I came to Braïla. I still had some money and I proposed to him that since we were friends we might become associates. He responded 'two sabers don't belong in the same sheath,' but he said, 'you can live with me.'
     So I turned a blind eye and lived next to him. In the beginning I still had hope for the future and believed in my friends. We ate our meals together, we often feasted. I was appreciated by my colleagues, ship commanders who promised me the Black Sea and Mount Athos.
     Days and years passed. One by one my good friends, who still could have saved me, disappeared. In the meantime Zanetto became powerful while I became weak and fell ill. Then, having spent all my savings, I couldn't pay for a good feast anymore and you know, when only one friend pays in a friendship, one loses respect and with it the friendship. Few people are an exception to this rule.
     Soon I became ragged and dirty. So nothing remained of the proud Mavromati. Not even my title as a captain, which I was denied and which became a subject of banter for the jocular youth in the saloon. "Captain" Mavromati was now only a legend!
     Following the general example, the cashier served me flat wine or diluted it with the siphon and pushed innocent children to make fun of me, then, to torment me.
     I didn't complain anymore, nor did I get upset. I said: 'Let it go! Captain Mavromati: kalo taxidi! (Have a good trip!) Adieu mavra matia!"
. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .

***

Dog days of summer. The bushes in the garden adorned with hops. A streetcar horse's fatigue. Bloody sweat.
     My shirt all drenched, I would go down to the icy hrouba to satisfy the needs of heartless customers and pave the way for the tuberculosis that awaited us all toward our twentieth year.
     And always curses and blows. Six boys passed through in less than three months. Six times I had to take on their duties.
     This inn was not an inn but a purgatory. Legions of gluttons with stomachs like boas. Hecatombs of chickens. Mackerels grilled by the hundreds. Twenty hectoliters of wine emptied a day. At midnight, at one our two in the morning, I threw my ragged self on the bed without taking off my clothes.
     Then came autumn, with its new wines and barbecues. Proud, vain, gossipy, Barba Zanetto made his old friends try his "trouble nectars", thirty times a day: "Waiter! Wash two glasses, dry them with an apple peel and fill them up for number 7."
     Clinking the glasses and clicking his tongue, the old man would watch for the "connoisseur's" verdict who put on airs and played difficult. "Waiter! Bring a bite of octopus on a fork! Maybe this gentleman has an empty stomach!"
     It was autumn. I started my second year of service. New conditions to discuss between the owner and my mother, who didn't discuss at all. "Are you satisfied with him, Kir Leonida?" "Yes, sure, mother Zoïtza, Panagaki is our boy! We'll make him assistant cashier!"
     This meant I was allowed to open the cash register, either to return change or to change it when the cashier wasn't there. And at once my salary doubled: two hundred francs a year, plus the extras: a suit, shoes, a hat, a day off for Easter and another one for Christmas.
     Finally, here comes the second winter. Fewer errands. More time to relax. Joys and tragedies.
     This time the Hick was ready to eat me alive. Not a day went by without beatings for me. "One of us is going to leave here! And be assured, it'll be you!" he screamed.
     In order to upset me, in view of my attachment to Mavromati, he increased his meanness and also used his asphyxiation scheme with the pimento again so that the poor man, weakened by his asthma, frequently had to spend long minutes coughing outside in the freezing cold until the shop was completely aired out.
     The owners knew, and had more than once happened upon such edifying scenes, but preoccupied with their big business they contented themselves with making a distracted remark. What did they care? The cashier was everything. It was he who ran the inn they almost didn't know anymore.
     I was so desperate that without my passionate friendship to Mavromati, I would have left the place as our inquisitor wanted me to.
     But my destiny had something else in store for me. It wanted my departure to be preceded by a victory and followed by a defeat, just as my incessant departures and arrivals all over this vast world have been since.
     One December day, despite my usual precautions, the Hick surprised me with my dictionary in my hands. This would have been without importance, had I been dealing with a human being, but as my enemy was only waiting for any pretext to provoke me, he pounced on the book. "What is this big book, all new?" he yelled, snatching the precious volume from me. "How did you get that? You're stealing from the cash register, you thief!"
     And with his fist he then dealt such a blow to my nose that I fell to the floor, bleeding. That very moment Kir Leonida came in. He ran to my help and screamed furiously: "What did you do, Demetrius? Are you crazy?"
     "He stole from the cash register, Kir Leonida!" retorted the brute. "Look: he bought himself this big book!"
     Swallowing mouthfuls of blood, I couldn't reply anything right away; I looked from one to the other and most of all to Captain Mavromati, who had stood up, pale, trembling, to respond in my place but was thrown back into his chair by a terrible coughing fit.
     The owner pushed back the dictionary that the cashier had handed him and helped me wash my face. During that time, the other kept repeating: "He is stealing, yes! I've had this suspicion for a long time that he was stealing!" "You are the one who's stealing!" I was finally able to scream at the top of my lungs. "I've seen you carting bottles of corked wine off to the 'baker woman.'"
     Faced with this assertion easy enough to confirm, Kir Leonida started like someone bitten by a viper.
     The only corked bottles of wine were a stock of a thousand liters, which was rarely sold. This wine, thirty years old, was called the "drug" because of its strengthening qualities, and it was consumed only when there was an illness in the family or else it was graciously offered to rare friends, always as a medicine.
     "He's lying, Sir, he's lying to save himself!" the Hick started to scream, deathly pale. "We'll see who's lying," said the owner. "But if he isn't lying, this will be it, even if he did steal from the cash register. Those bottles are counted. And that wine is worth more than its weight in gold." "All the bottles are there!" stammered the culprit.
     "Yes," I said, "they are there in their place but about fifty of them in the last row are empty and their necks turned toward the wall! I saw with my own eyes how you emptied them!" Captain Mavromati intervened; he said, visibly disgusted: "I don't know anything about the stolen 'drugs' but I know Demetrius has ten thousand francs in his bank account. I don't think he saved all that on his meager salary! As far as the dictionary is concerned, I gave it to him last year."
. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .
The skeleton in the closet was confirmed. They simply asked the Hick to leave, since the owners, being Greek, foreigners, preferred to turn a blind eye to it.
     So I became Master-servant over the cash register, the tavern and its mishaps.
     My mother was on cloud nine. Our suburbanites didn't stop telling her: "May God keep him alive for you! What a boy!"

***

Yes! "What a boy! May God save him for you!"
     Only this is the thing: this boy had suffered everything and had tried so hard -- not to become like the "Hick", but rather thanks to a marvelous energy commandeering his complicated mechanism.
     One dark winter evening, shortly after the "happy event" this miraculous energy left in pieces: Captain Mavromati succumbed one night. In his hovel, on his bunk, and all alone; far from his tumultuous Thalassa; far from the friendly hand of his little Panagaki; far from any hand of a friend to squeeze his in the last moments and say to him from the heart: "Friend... brother... Let me tell you that I have loved you, all your life, I have loved you!"
. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .
The day of the burial of the man whom I owed the "Bible" of my youth, I went out to do my tour of the regulars. On my way back, passing close to the ravine, I saw the Danube! Frozen since December, it had just broken its formidable armor during the night, this inexorable revolutionary! He had shattered it and now, unruly, thundering, invincible, he hauled his mass of white coffins.
     Yes, coffins! He crushed them, put them upright, laid them flat again, turned them upside down in all directions, bathed them in his floods and carried them on his back; carried them far away to Galatz, to Sulina, to the sea, to Captain Mavromati's Mavri Thalassa!
     I stayed there, riveted, the void at my feet, the void in my heart and I watched and watched this floating cemetery.
     Had I stayed too long? Had an hour passed? Two hours? Was it noon yet?
     I don't know at all, to this day. I only know that this idiot Barba Zanetto had been looking for me everywhere and ...
     ... And seeing me there, at the bank of the ravine, he approached stealthily and pushed me into the void! Just like that, out of rage, cashier and all that I was!
     
     Feeling the thrust I closed my eyes without screaming, without conscience and rolled down like a tree trunk, over the slope covered with a thick layer of snow. I rolled all the way down to the port. There I stood up and lifted my head to find out at least who had sent me on this trip.
     It was Barba Zanetto. All the way up there he gestured like a chimpanzee, yelling: "Ah! Kerata! That's what it is, huh? You leave the restaurant and treat yourself to the Danube! And I've been looking for you for an hour! Get up here quick, pouslama! We have the house full of customers, lots of customers!"
     I listened. When he was finished, I took off my apron, rolled it into a ball and tossed it as high as I could under his nose, screaming: "Maybe you have 'lots of customers' in your joint, but you don't have my Captain Mavromati anymore! Take your apron and stay in your full house!! I'm going to mine!"

A few hours later, walking back up to the house and passing through Cavalry Avenue, I saw the hearse, which carried my friend toward the realm where there are no bankers, no Spanish women, nor "Hicks", not even good friends.
     About ten people were following, bored.
     Adieu, mavra matia! Adieu, childhood!


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