Heart Catch Fire – Radou Pouianou

It was raining when we crossed the border and it didn’t stop until the sun had started to go down. Way away we saw the mountains of Maramureș. There were five of us in the car and three were sitting in the back, and the one that I was with had his arm around Milena and she was asleep.

“We better get some gas now,” I said. “Won’t stop until maybe Făgăraș.” The man in the backseat nodded.

Up ahead we saw a man riding a cart full of hay. We pulled next to him and I rolled my window down and asked him if the old gas station was still where I remembered it. The man said something, answered my question, laughed. I rolled my window up and we drove off.

“What you say?” the one sitting next to me asked.
“It’s fine,” I said.
The man in the back smiled and we spoke in Greek. The others didn’t say anything.
“What did he say?”
“He made a joke about how horses don’t need gas.”
“Horses die.”
“I guess.”

We drove on and I saw a brook running down the slope of the mountain. We crossed it driving over a small stone bridge. The stream kept going down the slope and on to our left and then it was out of sight. I took my flask out of the cupholder and gave it to the man sitting next to me.

“Here,” I said, “for the nerves. You can pass it along.” He held it up and nodded and took a good swig. I looked at the third man in the back. He hadn’t said anything. “Don’t worry,” I told him.
“He is,” the one next to me said. “He is worry. We are worry.”
“It’s okay.”
“Money?” he said. “Make money?” He made a gesture like he was putting food in his mouth.
“Yes,” I said, “make money. Don’t worry.”
“Family need money. Make a much money?”
“Take it easy there,” my man in the back said. “It’s cheap around here. But I guess you knew that. What are you going to do with all your money, anyway?”
“Eat. Live.”
“You don’t need much for that. C’mon, what would you really like?”
“Buy TV.”
“Buy a TV. There you go. You’re a free man, you know. You can do anything you like. And you’re going to buy a TV.”
“But need money to make money.”
“That’s not true. Ask my friend here,” he nodded toward me. “We are self-made men, the two of us, making our own way. Isn’t that right? Ask him. He’ll tell you all about it.”
I didn’t say anything.
“How make big money?”
“How make big money?”
“Yes, big money.”
“That’s a secret.”
“What secret?”
“If I told you it wouldn’t be a secret.” He was caressing Milena’s cheek. “Of course, that’s half the secret right there: don’t share. Isn’t that generous of me? I must be in a good mood today.” He seemed very amused with himself. “You know the word generous?”
“I’m pulling over for a break,” I said. We stopped by the side of the road and I killed the engine. “Anyone want to stretch their legs, now’s your chance.”
“You go on,” the man in the back told us, “I don’t want to wake her.” I looked at the girl and she was too stiff to be asleep now.
“Alright,” I said. We got out. It smelled like manure and dirt and grass. I saw a road that went down the mountain across from us reaching a village into the valley. There was a church in the middle of it. The church had a pointy roof.

“What there?” one of the men asked me.
“Don’t remember the name,” I said.
“Looks like painting.”
“It does.”
“Smells dung.”
“Yes,” I said. “It smells like countryside.”

We got back in the car and I got behind the wheel and we drove off. I looked in the mirror and the man still had his hand on Milena. She was deathly still. He saw me looking at him in the mirror and I looked away. I looked again and our eyes met and he smiled.

We found the gas station. It looked smaller than I remembered. A boy came out and asked me about the gas.

“Cât?” he said.
“Umple-o,” I told him.
The one in the back spoke slowly as if the boy was too dumb to understand:
“WC-ul?” he said.
The boy pointed out back.
“Don’t go anywhere,” the man told me. He said it as a joke, patting me on the shoulder as he got out. He slammed the door shut and Milena curled up against it. Her eyes were wide open in the dark. She was looking outside.
I paid for the gas. The man came back and got in.
“Ready?” I asked.
“Yeah,” he said, “let’s go.” He rested his hand on Milena’s hip. “How do you like this country Mily?”
She shrugged.
“You were lucky we caught some daylight. Won’t be seeing any more of those painting-like places. It’s all blocks and empty spaces from here on out.”

I don’t remember what time it was when we reached the outskirts. It was dark and cold and quiet. I couldn’t see much but I remembered the place. We drove by the old abandoned factory. The road cut through the middle of a village and was wrecked with potholes. An old man at his front door waited for us to go by so he could cross.

“Tell them the story,” the one in the back said, “the one with the wedding musicians.”
“Didn’t it happen around here?”
“Well, tell the story. It’s a funny story. They’ll like it.”
“I don’t know.”
“Tell them.”
“Fine,” I said after a while. “This road goes between two villages. The one we drove through just now is where my grandfather grew up. One day there was a wedding in the other village. The road didn’t exist back then so they travelled by foot or by cart. The day my grandfather went to the wedding there was a blizzard and he almost got trapped in the snow. He remembered being grumpy about it. At the feast the musicians didn’t show up and there was a big fuss about it. The father of the bride was furious. He had paid them in advance. It was a miserable wedding.”
“What happen the musicians?”
“They found them a few days later somewhere along this route. What was left of them anyway. The blizzard caught them and the wolves ate them.”
The one in the back giggled.
“You’re not telling it right. Other times you tell it right. It’s a really funny story. What’s wrong with you?”
“I don’t know,” I said.
“How long ago was this?”
“I don’t know. Fifty, sixty years?”
“That’s not so long ago. Isn’t that funny?”
“It’s half a century.”
“Well, there are no more wolves now, are there?”
“No forests either. All gone. Everywhere around here used to be a forest. Isn’t that right?”
“What happen?” one of the others asked.
“They cut it down.”
“Didn’t your grandaddy use to own something around these parts?”
“Can you imagine? His grandpa used to own part of a forest. Isn’t that right?”
I didn’t say anything.
“I said, isn’t that right?”
“It must have been something.”
I looked at him in the mirror and he was smiling.
“Well,” he said, “that’s all gone now, isn’t it?”
“Yes,” I said, “it is.”

We stopped in front of an old cottage that hunched out of a barren lump of land. Dim light fogged out of its dirty windows. The fence around it was rusty and you could still see traces of cyan paint on it. It smelled like cabbage and petrol and the place looked like a makeshift landfill. It was almost dawn and everything was quiet. Behind us were the old communist blocks, faceless and depressing.

The man in the back and I got out. A dirty old woman came to greet us at the front door. She was holding a very slim looking cigarette and spoke in a raspy voice.

“Any trouble?” she asked me in Romanian.
“All right. Let’s see them.”

I turned to the man and nodded. He smiled and said to the others: “Out.”

Our passengers came out hugging themselves in the cold.

“Stand right there,” he told them and pointed. They lined up in front of the house, eyes fixed on the ground. Steam was coming out of their mouths.

“All right, bring them in,” the woman said.

“Thank you,” the first one said as he went in. Then the others, thank you, thank you, one by one as they went in.
“Maică, maică,” the old woman said as she watched them, “look at them.” Her flannel shirt was full of holes and she smiled a toothless smile. I caught a glimpse inside the house. I don’t know how many people were there. The ones we had brought were standing in the middle of the room and one of them looked me in the eye before the door closed. We left them there.

We drove past the old furnaces and out of town. He was at the wheel. A thin line of light was breaking over the horizon. I saw trees arrayed somewhere in the distance and little broken houses on both sides of the road. Far off to our left was the village. When my grandfather was young he had built the family house there with his father. He was the only boy in a family of eight. Later, the two of them had dug a well in the middle of the village and everyone used it. It was still there, dried out.

When I was a boy he made a big iron swing for me and put it in his yard. I only saw it once when I was little but I remember sitting in it. I remember standing up on its flat wooden seat to look over the fence and watch the trains go by. They rode in so close that I couldn’t sleep at night and I sat in my bed listening to their engines and the clanking of the rails. The whole house was creaking and the windows were rattling. The china too. I liked being awake all alone in the night, listening to the trains go by.

“Look at these people,” he said and broke me off. “Aren’t you glad you didn’t grow up here?”

I didn’t answer. We passed a corner lot house that was missing half its tiles from its walls. The color had washed out of the halves that were still there and a satellite dish hung crooked on one side.

“Aren’t you?”
“I’m glad I missed the regime.”

He was smiling. He seemed very pleased with himself.

“Well, I like the place fine the way it is now. Makes for a good postcard. It’s all shit shoveling pig farmers out here but where we’re headed, it’s not bad. I like it, really. People playing dress up, but a pig farmer is always a pig farmer and you can’t change that. You can see it in the way they talk, even if you can’t understand what they’re saying.”

I was watching the countryside go by as we drove.

“I’m messing around. Come on, what’s the matter with you?”

He kept driving and I kept quiet. It was still dark out.

“You know what I’m thinking? I’m thinking we should expand our little enterprise.”
“Maybe we should come up with a name for it, you know, as an inside joke. Nothing official. Nothing pompous or anything. Something short and fu—”
“How about Intercontinental-Pan-Trans-Atlantic Imports/Exports?”
He smiled.
“Come on,” he said, “cheer up. What is with you? It went well. It’s a good day. It’s early and I’m hungry. You know what I’d really go for now? Some of that smoked sausage, a bit of burduf cheese, and a bit of mamaliga…”
“It’s pronounced mămăligă.”
“I said it’s pronounced mămăligă.”
“…Then, we should get ourselves some good Romanian pussy. I like me some of that. Aristocratic but cheap. Lady-looking whores. Fine ones. But cheap. Love it. So what do you say, hmm? Get us some of that? Get us some cheap Romanian pussy?”
“If you don’t stop talking,” I said, “I swear, I’ll knock your fucking teeth out.”
He didn’t say anything. I was staring at him. Right in the eye. I thought I’d go crazy, turn feral and rip his throat out. I felt my heart catch fire. I’d do it too, right there. Punch him in his stupid mouth. We’d swerve off the road and hit some tree and they’d find us in a ditch, stupid and dismembered and half dead.

He burst into laughter.

“All right man, all right. There we go.”

He kept on smiling and I saw his gold tooth. He showed me it. He had removed his top right canine and replaced it with a gold one, so when he smiled you knew his kind. He patted me on the thigh like I was a child. “There we go,” he said again, “There we go. It’s gonna be a long drive. Why don’t you go ahead and get some rest?”

I jumped in the back and laid flat on the seat and tried to go to sleep. I was getting cold. Like something dead. It wasn’t the right moment, I thought, it’s only that. Nothing more. But one day it will be. It will come. The right moment will come.

I heard him hum and make a vulgar sound, roll down his window, and spit. The road was full of holes and we drove under a thick tree canopy that blotted out the dawning light. I lay stiff in the backseat. My eyes were wide open in the dark.