A few old women were seated on either side of the coffin, whispering. Nobody wept, the deceased was an old man, with a haggard, yellow face, garbed in folk costume. “The next time I won’t look,” I said to myself, sitting down on a bench to wait.
Father said a prayer, and then the man next to him started to read from a book in a low voice. A fat woman came over to me with a plate of cozonac. I shook my head, but the woman took a slice and all but forced it into my hand. “The deceased can’t do it, because he’s already dead,” I thought, remembering my mother’s words. She used to say that whenever I refused to eat the stuffed cabbage, cozonac or cakes she brought wrapped in a cloth when she came back from a wake. Father said a few more prayers, constantly mentioning the name of the deceased, Ştefan servant of God; it was getting on my nerves that he spoke so loudly. Whenever he held a service, Father used to raise his voice; he no longer sounded like himself. It made me embarrassed and I lowered my head. I didn’t at all like hearing him like that, but that’s precisely why the old crones loved him as a priest; that way they could hear the sacred words clearly. Even though almost all of them knew every little phrase by heart—some of them would get ahead of Father and say aloud everything he was about to say. I was increasingly annoyed that I had come, I didn’t know what to do with the slice of cozonac, which was growing soggy in my hand, I could hardly wait for it to be over, to set off back.
By now it was completely dark outside. All of a sudden, I left with father. In the yard, I saw those men dressed in black again. They were clinking glasses. The only one I knew was holding a small grey television set; he was our neighbour. That’s what I called him, although it was a ten-minute walk or more to his house.
I’d never seen a television set so small; it looked like a toy.
The people had been waiting for Father. They downed another round before setting off. “We’re going up Bear Hill,” said the neighbour, “we’ll definitely be able to pick up a signal from Bulgaria there, Dumitrie Hill can’t be higher than Bear Hill.” I’d forgotten that it was the World Cup final that evening; I’d heard Father asking about it at lunchtime. “We’ll go and pick up a signal from Bulgaria. What else can we do,” answered the verger, who, I now noticed, hadn’t even come to the wake.
We couldn’t pick up a signal in our village, but I knew that my uncle could from his flat; he didn’t have to walk through the forest. Once, when I was visiting him with my mother, after the Romanian schedule finished, my uncle winked at my mother and switched over the channel to Bulgaria. I watched some of it, but not very much. Ştefan Hruşca was singing on stage somewhere, and that Hruşca got on my nerves whenever I saw him, because I’d heard my mother saying so many times that even though he was really ugly, she’d marry him just to hear him singing all day long, and those words annoyed me for days on end afterward.
The people knew Father was a big football fan, and that’s why they took him with them.
“If you come along too, father, maybe the good Lord will help us pick up a signal from Bulgaria,” quipped a bearded man, who was puffing on a cigarette. “All right, come on, let’s give it a try,” said Father and the others stood aside to let him walk ahead. I walked just behind him. And behind me came the bearded man and the neighbour with the television set, and then another two, neither of whom I knew, but I could hear them making bets; the one with the squeaky voice said Holland would win two-nil. I couldn’t see him, but his voice annoyed me.
I walked two paces behind Father, who, when he had to step over a baulk between furrows, lifted his cassock like a skirt and then carried on, holding a lighted candle. The way was neither easy nor short. It would take us at least half an hour to reach Bear Hill, I heard the neighbour saying. I was keeping very close to Father, always careful not to bump into him; the darkness all around frightened me. Sometimes the candle would blow out and then the bearded man would quickly come up and say, “Just a second, father,” and light it again with a match. The bearded man smoked constantly and when he slipped or tripped over a hump invisible in the darkness, he would swear his head off, before saying, “God forgive me,” and the others laughed and told stories; we proceeded like that, in single file, on our way to the big final.
I’d never been so far away, least of all at night, and although I was growing more and more afraid, I thought of the day when Virgil would arrive and I would tell him about my extraordinary adventure up on Bear Hill at night. Maybe he wouldn’t even believe me, but luckily, Father would be able to confirm it.
When we arrived, the neighbour put the television down on the grass and, before he turned it on, I got rid of that slice of cozonac, tossing it behind me into the darkness. The screen lit up and made a whining noise, full of grey and black static. That was all. The bearded man grasped the antenna and started moving it left and right, but it made absolutely no difference. The television cast a puddle of light and sounded exactly like when the schedule finished, even though the bearded man had by now lifted the antenna above his head and was walking back and forth with it. “Let’s move a few steps over there,” said the neighbour, and we all walked farther up the hill, to the very top.
They moved the antenna around, they turned the television off and on again, but nothing.
I had grown cold and I was keeping close to Father. Menacing darkness lurked behind us, making me jump and prick up my ears at the slightest sound. “If Mîrza sees us up here, tomorrow we’ll all be hauled down the station,” said the one with the squeaky voice. “Don’t worry, if Mîrza turns up, we’ll tell him we came up here with the father to pray,” laughed the neighbour, holding the set and walking behind the bearded man. “Come off it, as if Mîrza wouldn’t like to see the final too,” said the bearded man, “if he turns up, he’ll watch it with the rest us, of that I’m sure. Hey, why don’t you hold this antenna while I smoke a cigarette.” One of the others took the antenna and waved it around, spreading his arms wide, the static still filled the screen, without any change. “Damned television,” shouted the neighbour, “the match will have started by now.” “I told you so,” said the other one, “if we’d gone up Dumitrie Hill, we’d have been sitting drinking beer and watching the match by now.” “But how would we have got there? My cousin’s motorbike has broken down. He told me he can’t even get it started. And besides, there’d have been no point going all that way just for a match.”
“Hey,” came the squeaky voice, “what if we lift the television up in a tree? In this walnut tree here. Maybe it’ll pick something up since it’s a bit higher.”
“You’re out of your mind,” said the bearded man, tossing away his cigarette, “but let’s try it. Go on, you climb up first and I’ll pass the television and antenna up to you.” The man climbed the tree, then the bearded man climbed up, he took the antenna and clambered a few branches higher. “Take care not to fall.” They turned the television on, up there in the walnut tree, but the screen was just the same: a square lantern that cast a beam of light and emitted an annoying whine. Father hitched up his cassock and sat down on the grass; I sat down beside him. Shortly before, the others had been talking about Mîrza and now I was really afraid lest he found us up there.
“I told you it wouldn’t work up here,” said one of them, “if there were a signal, Bear Hill would be swarming with folk right now. What, are they daft to go all the way to Dumitrie Hill? If it worked here, they’d come here!” “Shut up,” said the bearded man, climbing a branch and waving the antenna even higher up.
“What time’s the funeral tomorrow, father?” asked another, sitting down on the grass. “At one, after mass,” said father, in that voice that made me feel embarrassed. And all of a sudden, two thin black stripes started to move up and down on the television screen. “Hey, look, that’s it, that’s it,” cried the man, jumping to his feet at the same time as Father, “it picked up something, try moving that antenna a bit more, beardy, like that, a little more to the left, like that.” And that was what the bearded man did. Just a few moments later, a foreign voice could be heard and the men already up in the walnut tree shouted, “It’s working! It’s working!” I didn’t think twice. As soon as our neighbour climbed up, I climbed up after him, I was an expert tree-climber, I climbed up past him, moving to the side and even using his shoulder as a footrest so that I could reach the highest bough. After I had seated myself as comfortably as possible, I realised that up there, at the top of the tree, I couldn’t see the screen, but only the brief waves of white light it emitted. They had lost the signal again, and the one with the squeaky voice blamed the bearded one: “Serves you right,” he said, “if you couldn’t hold it a few seconds longer.” “Shut the fuck up,” said the bearded man, “before I clout you. Come up here and see if you can do better,” said the bearded one, as he tried moving the antenna again, stretching out along a thick bough, puffing on his cigarette all the while. “Hey, that’s enough,” said the neighbour, and right then, I saw Father trying to climb the tree too. Only he and the man who had been sitting next to us on the grass were still on the ground. The man clasped his hands together for Father to use as a step. Father slipped his foot between the man’s hands, and the man heaved him up high enough to catch hold of the lowest branch. He caught hold of it easily, but immediately after that, his foot slid from between the man’s hands and he started swaying “Come on, father,” said the man, “lift your leg up and hook it over the branch.” Father didn’t say anything; he continued to sway. He neither let himself drop back down nor attempted to get his leg over the branch. I smiled, I knew how afraid he was of climbing trees. The man grasped him by the knees and tried to lift him. The one with the squeaky voice, who was up in the tree close to me, continued to make comments and swear at the bearded one. “Shut up, pipsqueak, or else I’ll come and get you. Hold this antenna till I get up,” he shouted to the neighbour, who leaned down and took it without a word. Father had managed to clamber onto the lowest branch of the walnut tree. The man who helped him up was already on the branch below the bearded man. “We’ve climbed up for nothing,” he said, “I can still see nothing but static.” “Well, duh,” came the squeaky voice straight away, “that beardy is useless . . .” “Damn your hide!” The bearded man climbed up toward us. “Come here, you arsehole, come here and let me give you something to complain about!” The one with the squeaky voice climbed up higher and squatted on the branch beside me, ready to jump to the other side of the walnut tree if the bearded man really did come after him. “Cut it out,” I heard the neighbour say, “better let me pass the antenna up to you, it’s higher up.” Father had stretched out on his belly and was clinging to the branch with both arms, losing his balance only at intervals and only very briefly. He didn’t say anything, his cassock flapped down on one side when he shifted to right himself. The one with the squeaky voice aimed a kick at the bearded man, who had come closer, and the bearded man almost fell out of the tree, but in the last moment he managed to grab onto the branch below, although he did hit his knees and scratch his hands. “You fucker!” I heard him say, “I’ll kill you with my bare hands!” He started climbing back up. The man who had helped Father tried to stop him by grabbing onto his coat, but the bearded man hit him across the face with the back of his band. “You arse!” yelled the man, “what did I do to you, you arse!” The bearded man made no reply, but the other man came after him, swearing. The neighbour had forgotten about the antenna, he was holding it upside down, watching the others. I wanted to climb down, I was afraid one of them might hit me in the nose, but the one with the squeaky voice was holding on to my shoulder with one hand and kept aiming kicks at the bearded man. The bearded man avoided the kicks and then managed to catch hold of the other man’s trousers and was about to drag him off the branch when the other one grabbed him by the hair and started to yank it. When the bearded man’s neck came level with his shoulder, the other man punched him in the face. The bearded man immediately tried to elbow him, but the other man dodged. “Hit him, hit him in the gob,” said the man with the squeaky voice, carefully leaning down and aiming a kick at the bearded man. I was clinging tightly to the branch, with both arms; that idiot almost knocked me off a few times. “Come down,” said the other man to the bearded one, grabbing hold of his hair again, “get the hell down, otherwise I’ll give you a good thrashing, you arse. What did I do for you to hit me?” The neighbour had edged along the branch on which he was sitting so the two of them could get down. After tossing down the antenna, he carefully descended, abruptly changing the direction in which the light of the television shone. They all climbed down, jumping over Father, who was still lying motionless on his belly, stretched along the lowest branch. I jumped over him too, and only after the man aimed a few more kicks at the bearded man did he lift his arms to help Father get down. In the darkness of the tree, I could hear the man with the squeaky voice moving around, but his voice was no longer to be heard. The neighbour had not turned off the television, he was still holding it and since nobody else had absolutely anything to say, he started talking: “We could try in Dobodea,” he said. “To hell with Dobodea, I’m not going all the way over there,” said the bearded man, “and in any case, the first half must be almost over by now. Better we go home.” “Father, it looks like we can’t pick up a signal from Bulgaria up here,” I heard one of them say. “Damn that president of ours, damn him to hell,” said the bearded man, wiping his nose on his sleeve. “Shut up, you nutcase,” came the squeaky voice straight away, “shut up! Are you starting again or what?”
We went back down the hill in silence, this time with Father and I bringing up the rear; we could barely keep up with them. When we reached the deceased’s house, the bearded man and the other two came to a stop. “We’re going in to have a drink,” they said. Through the window could be seen the candles burning by the coffin. “Good night, father, good night.” The neighbour, who was still holding the television and the antenna, had gone on ahead, he was walking on long strides down the narrow path that led to the graveyard. I was now walking between the man with the squeaky voice and Father, who was right at the back; as he walked downhill, he kept tripping up on his cassock. A little way before the graveyard, the neighbour made another attempt. He turned on the television and moved the antenna around over his head. When we caught up with him, we came to a stop. “Come on, give it up,” said the squeaky voice, “forget about it!” In that same moment, the screen lit up brightly and instead of the whining and the grey static, a woman appeared. She was making sounds that I thought were cries of pain at first. I went closer and saw she was lying face down on a bed, stark naked. I boggled my eyes, but the image vanished and the static filled the screen once more. My father’s heavy hand came down on the back of my neck. I lost my balance and fell. I didn’t hurt myself as I fell, but the blow really had been heavy; my ears were ringing in pain and anger. I couldn’t understand why, I couldn’t understand it at all. I picked myself up and walked behind him, crying.
Father had lit the candle again and was making his way among the tombstones toward our house. Behind us could be heard the whine of the television, exactly the same noise as when the schedule finishes, and the squeaky voice tittering in the darkness, “Try again, Nelu, try again!”.
Translated by Alistair Ian Blyth