Three things shook the Mocoiu family after the birth of Vasilică: Ion Mocoiu went blind, Sanda Mocoiu’s weight ballooned to more than three hundred kilos, and Gelu started talking to the poultry.
The old man’s untreated cataract had led to the lenses of his eyes becoming completely opaque. He’d tried to land a punch in the fracas that broke out on the night of his son’s wedding, but hadn’t been able to hit anybody. That was because the white film that now covered his pupils had begun to develop even then. His guide through the darkness of recent years had been Sanda. All until the day when she reached three hundred kilos and couldn’t get out of bed any more, whereupon the rôles were reversed.
Gelu’s mother had gained renown as insatiable at a fair held in Căciulaţi, when she was a young woman. That day, Sanda Mocoiu’s appetite had put to shame the gluttons from all the villages around. With a delicacy out of keeping with that place, she had slowly eaten twenty-six skinless sausages, three pork chops, and a number of spicy mutton sausages. It was then that Ion Mocoiu had fallen in love with her, because a fat woman could more easily tolerate the temperature swings of fifty degrees Celsius to which the human body was subjected when moving from winter to summer on the Romanian Plain. Ion Mocoiu needed a survivor, who would stand up to the winter frost and the summer heat. And that’s what Sanda proved to be.
After they got married, the woman became famous around the village for the hens she slaughtered daily. There wasn’t a day when she didn’t slaughter two hens: one for Ion and Geluţu (their only child, born in their first year of marriage), and one for her. Truth to tell, her only wealth—which they tended as such all their lives—had been the more than one thousand hens that filled their yard to bursting point. They earned money from selling eggs, and a large part of it they spent on sweets.
“I want something sweet, Neluşel. Will you go to the shop for me?”
And Ion Mocoiu would go into the village and come back with a bag full of halva, biscuit cake, fondant bonbons, and dark chocolate. When Gelu had grown up and started to catch fish, Sanda couldn’t have been happier at the culinary diversification that was thenceforth to mark her stews, broths, and ragouts, which had thitherto been made entirely with chicken. Although poor and limited in their income to the sale of eggs from their coops, the Mocoiu family ate meat every day.
Thanks to the thousands of hens she’d beheaded over the years, Sanda’s stomach had almost doubled its capacity. Morbid obesity went hand in hand with high blood pressure, shortness of breath, gastric reflux, urinary incontinence, and the osteoarthritis that attacked her knees, making her bedridden. The legs of the sofa bed had given out one night and the mattress collapsed onto the floor under Sanda’s weight. She almost crushed Ion Mocoiu as she fell. Vasilică—in his second hour of life—started crying and Gelu appeared on the threshold, hungover and irritated. On seeing his mother sprawled on the mattress and his blind father struggling to lift himself from under her arm, said angrily: “You’re making my head spin,” and went outside into the night.
He slammed the door behind him, and Onu and Ina, who were asleep on the fold-out couch crammed inside the vestibule—poked their heads out from under the bare quilt. The twins looked at the door a while, then vanished back under the quilt, where it was warm.
The same day, while their mother was inside the house bringing Vasilică into the world, the two children had found a dead chicken in the yard. Their grandfather had trodden on it without realising. He’d crushed it when he went outside, in front of the house, while urinating on a flock of ducks. The old man had sensed something squeak under the sole of his foot, but the pitch darkness through which he was groping had deprived him not only of light to see but also interest in anything unconnected with his immediate physiological needs.
Ion Mocoiu ate, he slept, he urinated in front of the house, as well as defecating there. These four basic activities were interrupted only by his pathological need to lie. His habit of bending the truth and inventing stories to his own advantage was surpassed only by the love he felt for Sanda. In fact, that was also how he had awoken the fat young woman’s interest, when he saw her that day in the tent at Căciulaţi fair: by lying to her.
“I had more than thirty pigs, but they got ill and died this winter, I used to let them roam the yard, they were like dogs, they were, I’d tamed them, they ate from the palm of my hand, the whole of Gruiu knows me, Ion, Mocoiu’s son, that’s what they call me, I used to whistle to them and they could come to me, oink-oink, you should have seen them wiggle their little tails when I came through the gate, and their boss was Sică, that’s what I called him, more than three hundred kilos, a great, big boar, big and white, purebred, I’d broken him in like a horse, I’d ride on his back, I swear to God, let me die on the spot if I tell a lie, I’d ride the boar to the tavern, leave him by the bicycle rack, he’d wait for me there, loyally, I’d come home holding a beer mug, riding him, Sică would open the gate with his snout and drop me off in front of the door, how could I lie? why would I lie? ask anybody, everybody on the lane knows, they saw me, I couldn’t bring myself to slaughter him on St Ignatius’s Day, I called a neighbour to do it, I only sliced him up afterward, I had smoked meat and crackling on the table winter, autumn, spring, summer, I had ham, bacon, a barrel of lard, I’ve still got some even now, but the piglets died, they caught the flu, they died in droves, I loaded them on the cart and burned them at Ialomiţa, it smelled of toasted hide all the way to Bucharest, the next day I went back and what did I find next to the burnt pigs? A horse-drawn hearse, I look through the window of the hearse, nobody, I say to myself, I’ll take it to the priest, I climb up onto the coachman’s seat, whip the horse to a gallop, a nice sorrel horse, but he wouldn’t go where I wanted, only where he wanted, he went his own way, forded the Ialomiţa, cut through the forest and came to a stop at Pig’s Hole, where the oil derrick blew, he came to a stop and started to graze the tobacco, I swear, may I be struck down, I hear a noise from the depths of the earth, like a gurgling, and I take fright, what if it bursts again, I make a run for it, I forget the horse, I forget the hearse, I run through the forest and into the village, my yard’s empty, a depressing sight, not one grunt, not one piglet, no Sică to carry me on his back, I didn’t feel like drinking, so I smoke, I smoke and I smoke, and I start to regret leaving that handsome hearse in the middle of that field, how stupid I was to get frightened that the derrick might blow again, it had blown once, it wasn’t going to blow again, so I set out again, I reach Pig’s Hole, the hearse is nowhere to be seen, somebody stole it, I say to myself, the horse is still there, munching tobacco, I go up to it, pat it, take it by the bridle and slowly lead it, come on, lad, come on, I was leading the horse, it followed me, I was overjoyed, I go with it to the village and all of a sudden it stops, giddy-up, boy, giddy-up, nothing, he was headstrong, I smoked a cigarette, and straight away I see him trot off, I catch up to him, take the reins, he’s walking peacefully, when all of a sudden he stops, damn you, I tell him, and that sorrel horse made me stop about six more times before I got him back to my yard, I gave him a bucket of apples and sat down on the porch, the horse was eating peacefully, a nice horse you’ve got yourself there, Ion, you’ve got yourself a stallion just right for pulling your cart, but that horse had a flaw, and he annoyed me no end before I realised what it was, he always stopped in those six places, the same six places, Marian, I called him, he would stop, but only in those places, he would stand stock-still a while and set off again when he felt like it, I would whip him, slap him, cajole him, nothing, you stubborn horse, Marian, until I realised which houses he used to stop outside and then I took fright, what did you say your name was, Sanda, Săndica, you’re from Gruiu and you know the story, my Sanda, my Marian would stop outside the gates of Briceag, Mitran, Patrichi, Prunaru, Maghearu and Paţan, you look surprised, that’s what I was like when I realised, all wide-eyed, oh, what can it mean, I say to myself, it’s a sign, the horse knows something, the years had passed, but folk still talked about the women who’d vanished and I grew afraid, why the hell wouldn’t I have, and so I let him go free, giddy-up, I said, giddy-up, and I slapped his arse, he ran off, he went to Pig’s Hole, where he started grazing tobacco, people would come to the village and ask: whose is that sorrel horse grazing up at Pig’s Hole, whose is it? nobody’s, until one day, when I happened to be eating at the same table as an old gypsy from Lipia, we were eating skinless sausages, talking among ourselves, the Gruia folk, and he hears us talking about the sorrel horse, and looks at us in amazement and asks whether the sorrel is still in the hole, I saw him there last week, I tell him, and the gypsy runs like a scalded cat to the field, but he comes back that evening, no sign of the horse, he tells us, then he leans over to me, it’s his horse, the gypsy tells me, he stops like he’s been struck by lightning and starts to laugh, he was some bloke that gypsy, but he never stopped joking, why are you laughing, gypsy, I ask, but he’s foaming at the mouth and croaking, he’s choking with laughter, he stretches out a finger and strokes my streak, my streak of grey hair, he spits on his breast and says, you’re his too, and he starts laughing again, he stroked my grey streak and laughs, I laugh with the gypsy, he was talking nonsense, I couldn’t understand what he wanted, he had a defect, and he’d been clouted over the back of the head for that defect, he used to snatch the caps off men’s heads, he would throw their caps on the ground when he met them in the road or at the tavern, he would look at men’s hair, he would laugh at some of them, he wouldn’t say anything to others, the devil take him, one evening he gave me a fright, a very bad fright, we were the last ones in the bar and he started telling me the story of the Goat and Her Three Kids in Romany, you’d have laughed your head off, and at the end, when I was drunk on beer and darkness had fallen, what does Brimstone do, that’s his name, he unbuttons his fly, whops out his great big todger, and plops it in the empty beer mug, he pulls the beer mug down by the handle, his todger bends double, and when he releases it, thwack, he catapults the beer mug over the tops of the fir trees, thwack, he catapults a second, the beer mugs were catapulting from Brimstone’s todger like cannonballs, I could hear them breaking around the village, on the roofs of the houses, and the lights went on in the houses and the people came out into their yards, they didn’t know what was landing on their tiles, they were empty beer mugs from Mărgărit, launched by Brimstone’s huge todger, I learned it from him, he kept repeating like an idiot, he said: and you’re his too, he said it, baring his canines at me over the table, and the wife you’ll marry, you haven’t met her yet, but she’s his too, he said, haven’t you seen how many young lasses and lads have grey spots in their hair, well, they’re his too, the whole village comes from his cock, he tarried here a year, he came in umpteen cunts, that’s what he told me and I listened to him as if in a dream, mad gypsy, I go to catapult my beer mug, what, no stinking gypsy can beat me, I said to myself, whack, I put the mug on my prick, I pulled the handle, and when I released it, it flew right up to the moon, I don’t know where it landed, what, you think I can’t do it, and when I started taking all the mugs that were left, thwack, thwack, I fired them from my prick, Brimstone was laughing to split his sides, you really are his, he said, he went off back to Lipia, I went back to my yard, and before I leave, I ask him what he does and he says he was the forester’s assistant, then my head started spinning really badly, he leans over to me, starts laughing again and says: I was going down the road with him, the horse was behind us, it was muddy after the rain and when I look behind, I see my footprints, the horse’s hoofprints and a third trail that were hoofs, like a piglet’s, but much bigger, he-he-he, that’s what that gypsy told me, choking with laughter, he laughed non-stop, I got up and tottered off, the whole of Gruiu was spinning round with me, I thought he’d put something in my beer, I was staggering and I kept meeting people out in their yards, woken up by the broken beer mugs, it wasn’t till the first rain that the shards fell down the drainpipes and folk realised what had hit their roofs that night, what did you say your name was, Sanda, would you like me to show you the trick with the beer mugs?
Translated by Alistair Ian Blyth