The minister of culture was sexy. He had ripped his old tan jeans, torn them off above the knees. They were shorts now.
They were walking through the long, honey-coloured grass: he and some of his mates from Peltova. It was at least ten years since they had seen each other, since they had been together, as it were. The river was narrower now. The trees were lower. They stopped every now and then and wondered:
‘Shit, it’s been a while, hasn’t it …?’
The waterholes were spying on them. Dark, greenish. The men were aiming for the river, they would simply slide down as soon as they came across a softer incline, a friendlier opening. Only one of them had brought his child along, so that there was someone to lug the bottles, the whisky and the beer cans, in a scruffy, rough raffia bag, just like in the old days. The minister himself had insisted, in Darius’s courtyard:
‘That!’ And he pointed his finger at the bag hanging from a nail on the door. ‘So – since I’m not on TV, I can begin my sentence with so …’
‘You can do whatever you damn please,’ his host chimed in.
‘So, I think Ceaușescu himself queued for food with this bag. Look at it,’ – he stood on tiptoes and grabbed it – ‘rougher than sandpaper, honest.’
And he threw the bag to the kid.
‘Go to your mother,’ Darius instructed his son, ‘and bring whatever she gives you. She’ll know what.’ And he pointed his finger too: at the kitchen door.
The clouds were lower and lower. The men had broken into a sweat. At some point they gave up wiping it away. A clearing appeared near a poplar. A steep path, barren.
‘Pop open a bottle. Come on, pop it open!’
The kid made to open the bottle, but his dad grabbed it from his hand.
The minister downed a big gulp of Jack Daniels and passed it on.
Marcu chimed in, shivering: ‘The water will wake us up.’ They had drunk the night before as well. ‘It will knock some sense back into us.’
They started making their way down, one by one. The earth was yellowish and crumbly.
‘I think I’ll go straight in,’ the minister mumbled and then jumped.
The water was surprisingly warm.
‘Right you are!’ And Marcu jumped too.
The child passed the bag to his dad and cursed under his breath. He was not allowed to jump.
‘Minister, you take the fishing net. Just like in the old days.’ A smile softened the look on Darius’s face. ‘Stick it right here, under the willow.’
Darius had already pushed his arms into the slimy mud of the bank and winked wickedly. The minister did as he was told.
‘You.’ Darius turned towards the child. ‘Go over there to the left and don’t let anything past. And, you know, stamp your feet and shake your legs.’
‘Spook ’em,’ the kid said.
The others had encircled a small island in the river, and submerged their arms all the way to their shoulders beneath it.
‘It’s a hole, a barbel’s hole, I think.’
Adiță swallowed some water and spat it out, frowning.
And he pulled out a chub fish about as big as his palm. His fingernail was bloody. The kid took a picture.
And he threw the fish into the bag, among the beer cans.
‘Careful, you squashed it,’ Marcu told him off with a smile.
‘You smashed it. Watch out, I’m sending another one your way. I grabbed it by the tail.’
The second chub was way bigger. Adiță grabbed it from underneath. He poked his nails straight into its gills. The fish had got caught in a tangle of roots.
‘Got it … Now you let it go.’
‘Are you sure it’s cute enough, mate?’
‘What do you think?’
Marcu lay back in the murky water and stretched out his arms. Adiță was trying to squash the fish’s head. He’d given up simply pressing down hard and was now slamming it against the rotting wood. He was the strongest chainsaw worker in the village. His nails were square. Finally, he managed to almost grab it. His fingers were inside the fish.
And he pulled on it as hard as he could. The chub surfaced. Its head was bobbing. Its belly was all white. The child grabbed it, shivering, and tossed it on top of the tins. The minister lifted the fishing net slowly. It’s true that he had felt some faint movement at his feet. A murky sensation. The fish seemed liquid too. He wasn’t expecting to find anything in the net. The slow, agonising movement prolonged the suspense. But a purple barbel was thrashing about in the net.
‘Would you believe it?’ he said, nodding as if in a cabinet meeting.
Darius: ‘A barbel?’
Adiță: ‘A beauty, and that’s the truth! I’ll trade you two chubs for it later.’
The barbels’ bellies were even whiter. He’d been obsessed with this species ever since he was a little boy. Their old next-door neighbour to the right, the one beyond the stone wall, always caught them like crazy. He would prepare his bait the night before, raking through the manure for worms. He never kept bait in matchboxes or cartons, but – and the minister learned to do this too – in small jars of various kinds, which he would line up on a windowsill, just as someone might in a room in a hostel. He would always put some soil at the bottom, at least a little.
They were moving upstream, through rapids. The banks bellied out.
‘Here.’ Marcu frowned and dashed over to the dry bush growing on the bend. ‘This is where I caught one that weighed a kilo. I don’t know when that was now. A year ago perhaps. Come on, Darius, hold my feet. I need to get under the bank all the way to my knees. You pull me out when I give the signal – I’ll flap my left foot three times, OK?’
A distant cousin of his had died a little further down the river. The first Saturday of his holiday. Perpelea, his mate, pulled him out of the hollow like a stick. He’d felt the guy’s ankles getting thinner. As old hags would say, his heart had burst in him; went pop, like a plastic bag. He was thirty-six. Perpelea had dropped him onto his back on a strip of wet sand. He’d been hesitant to ‘kiss’ him even there, in the wilderness, to do what he’d seen in Baywatch, mouth to mouth. They both had moustaches and ponytails. He had pounded him as hard as he could in the heart area, trying, as he’d later stated to the head of the police station, to ‘resuscitate’ him. The skin of the corpse had started to dry.
Darius: ‘You won’t catch anything else here even if …’
‘Go ahead, minister,’ Marcu barked, ‘stick the net in. Better still, give it to me.’
The minister threw it over with enviable precision. The net – it was finely meshed – swelled. Marcu grabbed it with one hand and jammed it in the mud, immediately behind the bush.
He started to shake it hard, to stomp his feet.
He howled like Tarzan and, after about ten seconds, pulled out the net. It was crawling with lăcișci. Small, bitter fish, which, unlike loach, couldn’t even be used as bait.
‘Small change, so to speak!’
He threw the fish into the air. As high as he could. Their fins were coloured. The child tried to catch a few of them in his raffia bag. He liked them: they were broad and playful. Every now and then they would bite a worm or a maggot.
Marcu sat cross-legged in the water, and then disappeared. In less than two seconds, though, the soles of his feet surfaced. His heels were cracked, copper-coloured. Darius grabbed Marcu’s ankles and pushed him down.
‘He’ll be OK for half a minute, don’t worry.’
The child took the phone out and started the timer. Marcu’s soles disappeared too.
Adiță: ‘He’s not afraid. That’s what I like about him. God forgive me, but I think he wants to die underwater, like his cousin.’
Five feet in, maybe more, under the bank, Marcu opened his eyes for a split second. The fish slapped him straight in the forehead. He snatched at it, catching it as if it were a fly. Almost instinctively. And then he plunged his teeth into its back. The creature writhed and arched. But that was when Darius decided to pull him out.
‘Like a woman, he spread his legs …’
The child snapped pictures of Marcu’s hands as they emerged from the water, one by one.
‘Fuck, he caught nothing!’
But Marcu turned suddenly, as if trying to frighten his mates. Something that looked like poop, but darker, was leaking out of the fish’s anus.
‘Twenty seconds you were under,’ the little boy burst out. ‘Dad, watch this.’
And he handed his father the phone.
By Tudor Crețu
Translated by Dana Crăciun
Read The Romanian Riveter in its entirety here.
Tudor Crețu is a writer and the manager of the ‘Sorin Titel’ Timiș County Library. He writes prose, poetry and literary criticism, and organises cultural events such as the International Festival LitVest. His poetry collections include Dantelăriile Adelei (Adela’s Lacery), and Fragmente continue. Poeme live (Continuous Fragments. Live Poems) won the Poetry Book of the Year award of the Romanian Writers` Union, the Banat branch.
Dana Crăciun teaches 20th-century literature and American Studies at the West University of Timișoara. Her other research interests include post-9/11 crises of representation, critical theory, and, more recently, conspiracy theories.