The Romanian Riveter: WHISPERS by Alexandru Colțan, translated by Antuza Genescu

The fires were beginning to die down. The men held their clubs above the last of the flames, watching them lick the rags wrapped around their ends. Night birds called to each other in the air. After a while, the men stood up and started the journey down, working their way through a jungle of reed, sedge and foxtail. Had they looked up beyond their torches, they would have seen the first stars glimmering in the sky.

The grass was thick, their shirts torn and their arms scratched, but they pressed on, trying not to stumble and fall. They stepped carefully over rotten tree trunks knocked down by storms, through sharp-leaved shrubs rustling before them and under their feet. When they skirted the willows, an otter startled them, jumping up before disappearing back into the ground. ‘Not much longer now,’ Jacob told himself for the hundredth time, watching the sky shrink like a huge, blue stomach.

Bloodnut started singing, ignoring the other men’s mumbled protests. He had a clear, strong voice and for some reason, they all looked up at the moon’s white circle for a moment.

‘I think we’ll do a good job,’ said a voice from behind. The others must have been happy, as, one by one, the smells of the river welcomed them.

At long last, they reached the trees on the ridge. Before their eyes, ghosts danced in the mist on the wide river – the dark monster that rubbed its neck against the shore. Jacob no longer recognised the place. Never had the river on which death walked seemed so close.

They kept silent for a while, watching the water carry away the reflections of their torches and the souls of those who had once drowned. Eerie calls and whispers came from the darkness, which had caught up with them.

‘From here on we walk in pairs,’ decided Bloodnut, pairing them up quickly, ‘and we meet again at Stream Shedding!’

In the torchlight, they looked like strange creatures with red, misshapen faces, ruffled hair and glowing eyes. The creaking tree crowns billowed, invisible in the wind. The village had vanished, as though it had never been there at all. He was the last to leave. He saw Bloodnut and his brother disappear suddenly into the heart of the night. He knew Bitu was standing behind him, waiting for him in silence, his face lost in the dark. No time to waste, they had to move on. In truth, Jacob didn’t know the way back home.

They squeezed hastily through the thick foliage that grasped at them like a huge monster with green teeth and claws, pushing aside vines and weeds that grew freely, treading on dead branches covered in fungi. Torches in their hands, they walked along the shore. They passed by creepy figures dressed in ivy and dense grass, through tall ferns and thorny bushes, they ducked under lichen-mottled trunks. They heard the river roaring underneath their feet, as though from under the ground, biting the shore with long monster teeth, harder and harder.

The boy looked at Bitu’s fur coat and cursed under his breath. This was his first fishing expedition. Why had he ended up with this silent, wild man who never caught anything?He squeezed the fork his father had tied to a hazel branch tighter in his palm. It was his turn to become a fisherman and he was stuck with Bitu. Just his luck. Why had Bloodnut not sent him with the other lads, downstream, towards the log dam?

They stumbled over clods of earth. The path made a hairpin bend and then followed the fields. They left it and kept along the wall of vegetation, until they found another beaten path concealed by the undergrowth. The smell of wild mint was so strong you could chew it.

Then they went down a trail descending among burdocks. White clouds unfolded lower and lower in the sky, as if in a dream. Further down, Jacob found some steps carved in the ground and two well-anchored rods with tiddlers writhing on the hooks. The fishermen had made a habit of leaving their lines by the bank during the night; the predators sniffed at the prey, swam around it in circles and eventually got caught themselves. Jacob had often heard about lads taking their boats out and tying their bait lines in otherwise impenetrable places or fishing in dangerous waters. It was common knowledge that every other day Bloodnut stuck a duckling on a hook that he had fastened to a tree. That’s how he caught the sharp-toothed pike-perch he sold to his friends. Once, Jacob saw him hide a huge salmon in a cart, the fish so heavy he could barely lift it.

They had reached a narrow opening between the leaves and roots, very close to the big river, the river of remembrance. They were finally there. Frightened birds were criss-crossing the sky above their heads, but Bitu would not hear anything. He was already climbing down and beckoned Jacob to follow. The boy obeyed, sensing he was sinking deeper and deeper into a cold trap, and suddenly saw his father drinking water from a tin mug, his face all wrinkled. ‘Whisper,’ he would tell him, ‘don’t let them see you, don’t let them hear you.’ He followed Bitu, who was now bent over the water, shining his torch on the glistening surface, his fork ready to strike. More than once, those who went down to the riverbank were pulled under by the currents or swallowed by the pits in the riverbed. It had happened to Roli, who had been found several days later, hopelessly tangled in the wires of the dam, his belly swollen, his eyes like those of a dead fish.

Jacob and Bitu advanced cautiously, trying not to trouble the water. It was a good thing they weren’t hurrying downstream, thought the boy. They had time to get there later. Hundreds of critters, water spiders, tiddlers looking for food swarmed at their feet, attracted by the light. They moved slowly around sunken tree trunks, but their prey was nowhere to be seen.

‘It should be somewhere around here,’ decided Jacob. ‘I must find it, catch a big one, brag to the whole village about it.’ Everybody knew that when spring came, when the forest echoed with birdsong, the nase swam up to the warmer waters of the brooks to lay their eggs. That year it hadn’t been the children patrolling the bank with forks who announced it, but the fishermen. Rumours that the nase had swum by the waterhole spread all around the canton. Immediately gill nets were lowered, pens were mended, the men met and separated into groups. Those living closer to the edge of the river knew from experience that at that time of year, the nase swam blindly and were quite easy to catch. They didn’t taste very good, they had a lot of bones, but they were fish nonetheless – fish were meat, and meat was life.

Bitu stopped and crouched down to scrutinise the red surface of the water. Suddenly, he thrust his arm down and his fork struck something. The boy froze with the torch in his hand. Then he saw Bitu recover his weapon.

‘We’re separating,’ mumbled Bitu. ‘Stop following me. Go that way.’

Jacob watched as his companion’s silhouette, reflected in the night’s blue sky, faded away in the veil of mist. ‘He’s worried I may trouble the water and catch his fish,’ he thought.

He was all alone now. The thought made his hair stand on end. He shifted his torch to the left and shone it on the shore, towards the dark abyss that was calling him. ‘I’ll catch something. I’ve got to catch something.’

He waded on for a long while, stumbling over the shiny pebbles, among insects as tiny as nails, which seemed to be the only living creatures in that water. Now and again, he lowered his fork in order to relax his tense arm muscles. He flinched at every sudden movement, but it was only the grass and reeds whispering. At some point, he felt the whole substance of the night gather in the round, yellow eyes of an ominous spirit that was studying him curiously over his shoulder. He felt its breath like a cold gust of wind and thrust his fork forwards, to keep it at bay for a while.

Once he thought he heard the Hound-of-the-Swamps barking closely behind him and froze on the spot. He knew the river carried away the souls of the dead; they rode on ghost horses, chased by wild beasts. He knew this from Surdu, who had lost his marbles after meeting with a young devil that called its dogs with a whistle. Older fishermen didn’t believe in such nonsense, but even older people could be wrong. It happened all the time. After all, what did they know? Weren’t they the ones telling stories about the miller’s daughter, who had green hair and goats’ legs, and haunted the waters dressed as a bride, to lure the lads into the whirlpools?

The boy kept searching, his weapon ready. Suddenly, a fish darted by his foot, too fast for him to catch. The fishermen had lied, he was sure of that now. The damned nase had not come yet. No surprise there. The cherry trees weren’t even in blossom, how could they have come?

Perhaps it would be better if he went further into the water. The current was stronger now, the water was colder, and fatigue seemed to leave his body through his leg muscles. His torch barely gave any light anymore. He wondered what the others were doing. Had they caught anything? No doubt, Bloodnut had sent him here, into dead water, so he would return empty-handed. Jacob saw the boys bursting into fits of laughter, then his mother’s still face came before his eyes.

The waves were rolling, spinning small crowns of yellowish foam. He slipped and nearly fell. A year back, when the ice was melting and the brooks flooded their beds, dead cows, uprooted trees and whole roofs floated where the currents were stronger on the river. It was strange how the river, yellow like pus, could feed both the forest and the fields.

Plink-plink-plink. Night was falling in small drops. He took a new torch from his fishing bag and lit it. Life slept on, hidden somewhere far away. That moment he heard the Hound-of- the-Swamps barking wildly just ahead of him.

By Alexandru Colțan

Translated by Antuza Genescu

Read The Romanian Riveter in its entirety here.

Alexandru Colțan’s writing has been published in the literary periodicals Vatra, Tribuna, Timpul, Orizont, and in five anthologies. He has won several literary awards. He is currently working on a volume of prose and a book of literary criticism. Colțan has been a member of the ‘Pavel Dan’ Literary Association, Timișoara, since 2007.

Antuza Genescu (b. 1968) is a freelance translator, teacher and writer. Besides several volumes of Romanian poetry and art albums, which she has translated into English, her work also includes translations into Romanian of various poets around the world (Sudeep Sen, George Szirtes, Fiona Sampson, Jean Portante, Alice Notley, Erkut Tokman, Kama Sywor Kamanda), as well as science fiction authors like Gene Woolfe, Isaac Asimov, Robert Heinlein, Vernor Vinge, Orson Scott Card, Robin Hobb, Stephen King.

Category: The Romanian RiveterTranslationsSeptember 2020 – The Romanian Riveter


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