The Romanian Riveter: From THE PROPHECY by Ioana Pârvulescu, translated by Alistair Ian Blyth



The wind now drove the ship onward, and its bird’s beak pecked the swath of diamonds that stretched away to the setting sun. Eli stood for a long time on the prow before each sunset and never tired of the flashes, the gleams, the glittering flight of the soft-edged beads, now yellow, now orange, now red, that the sun scattered over the water. Jacob, who missed no opportunity to recite a parable, reminded him that there are three things that leave no trace in the world, or even four: the eagle across the sky, the serpent across the rock, and the ship across the sea. Elisha wanted to know what the fourth was, but the old man said it was too soon for him to know and besides, he would discover it not from him, but from a woman. One evening, still standing in the same spot, the boy heard the men talking about how a major sacrifice was required in order to give thanks for their escape from both plague and sea monster.

They decided to sacrifice the goat, a good choice given that they no longer had anything to feed it and it was quite scrawny. Apart from the old man, who knew the ritual of sacrifice well and the various types of immolation, albeit only the Jewish ones, the others had never troubled their heads over such a thing. The captain made each pray to his own god, imploring that Leviathan would not approach the ship again. Then, because Jacob refused to officiate as priest for all of them, the honour fell on the Phoenician, who had the greater reason to give thanks and make sacrifice. He had fully regained his strength. He chose the butcher’s method rather than the priest’s, without any care for the small details, but truth to tell, the position they found themselves in justified certain shortcuts and simplifications. The goat bleated long and terribly, and three cups of its blood were poured into the sea as the Phoenician mumbled some words. Elisha understood those words quite well, since they resembled those of his own language. Only now did the lad turn towards them, gazing at them with obvious curiosity.

Since their departure from Joppa, he was the one who had changed the most, as indeed had his life. He was no longer recognisable. His hair was now clean and it curled, even though the salt wind had stiffened it. Jacob had made him cut his toenails with a large pair of scissors from his knapsack. His sick foot had healed (the old man had tended it and examined it every day thereafter) and his limp was almost gone. But the real transformation was that in the space of a few weeks the boy had become a young man. He had exchanged one body for another. His chest had grown broader, his Adam’s apple bobbed in his long throat when he swallowed, and down shaded his upper lip. His eyebrows were still tangled, his eyes still narrow, but now they were livelier. From Jacob he had learned the final letters: shin, ‘tooth’, s, 300, and tav, ‘sign’, t, 400. He knew how to combine the letters. He could count to a thousand. And his voice had grown deeper. He was waiting for something impatiently, but not even he knew what it was, and many times he waxed emotional for no reason, or irascible, or more often than not, sad. He was bored with life on the ship and wanted to be free again, free to do whatever he wanted, as he had been when Jacob first found him.

The others too had noticed the change in Elisha. At first, although he was Jacob’s servant, he served them all and each felt entitled to beat him. As he was inured to it, he didn’t care. But lately, he had refused to be beaten anymore, nor did he take orders from the others, obeying only the captain and Jacob. He answered them back, impertinently or maliciously, sometimes imploringly, begging for mercy. The more he learned – and this happened with each passing day, as fast as their eyes could see, since he assimilated knowledge easily – the more he learned, the more the men began to view him with mindfulness and a kind of intimidation. The Greek with the hooked nose sought his eyes, shaded by their bushy eyebrows, sought to be close to him. It was as if he were imploring him, begging something obscure. Eli, who had previously feared that Zeuxidamos wanted to kill him, now sensed that he had him in his power, that the tables had been turned, that the slave had become Zeuxidamos’s master, but this was as yet unclear. And since nothing can ever be wholly well, it was now Deimos who regarded him with enmity.

That evening they all ate goat’s meat and cast a fatty morsel into the sea for the monster. They also had fresh vegetables and wine. The week before, the ship had landed for the first time since its departure, in Azza, and from the Philistines they had purchased all they still needed. It seemed that everything was going well. The captain felt the blood seething through his veins in gratitude when he thanked the great gods of the Iberian heaven, Endovelico, Nabia and Trebaruna, for the peace that reigned aboard his ship; nobody had died of disease, or envy, or other causes, the plague had not spread, the monster had given them a wide berth, and the fear of it had brought them only good. Farther into the future he also glimpsed handsome earnings for him- self, but he did not find it fitting to speak to the gods of that, and instead he shared his joy with his ship, his little girl. On the evening of the sacrifice, they all lay themselves down to rest with full bellies and at peace.

It was also then that Zeuxidamos lay down beside Elisha for the first time, protecting him as if by chance with an out- stretched arm across his slender waist. It seemed to him that the lad was asleep and with exquisite delicacy he slipped his hand inside his shirt and softly caressed his chest, causing him to shudder, he moved his hand lower, down to his belly, he gently turned him over, caressed his firm buttocks, twisted him around once more, grasped the tender snake between his legs, rubbed its tip with soft fingers until, as swiftly as could be, he felt it harden in his ever greedier palm. Astonished, Elisha made no resistance.

For the first time since they had left Gat-Hefer, Jonah felt joyful and free. Perhaps he really had chosen the best course, that of assisting Jacob ben Benjamin, his father’s cousin. He fell peacefully asleep. The same as every night, Abiel nestled in the prow and, as had happened only once before, he dreamed of colours, not knowing what colours were. On waking, he was certain that that day something very bad would happen.

By Ioana Pârvulescu

Translated by Alistair Ian Blyth

Extract from THE PROPHECY

By Ioana Pârvulescu

Translated by Alistair Ian Blyth

Published by Istros Books (2021)

We are grateful to Istros Books for allowing us to publish this exclusive extract.

Read The Romanian Riveter in its entirety here.

Ioana Pârvulescu is a Romanian writer, and winner of the EU Prize for Literature for her book Life Begins on Friday. Several of her novels have been translated into multiple languages. She is currently a professor at the Bucharest Faculty of Letters, where she teaches modern Romanian literature.

Alistair Ian Blyth is one of the most active translators working from Romanian into English today. A native of Sunderland, England, Blyth has resided for many years in Bucharest. His many translations from Romanian include: Little Fingers by Filip Florian; Our Circus Presents by Lucian Dan Teodorovici; Coming from an Off-Key Time by Bogdan Suceavă; and Life Begins on Friday by Ioana Pârvulescu.

Category: The Romanian RiveterTranslationsSeptember 2020 – The Romanian Riveter


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