Eusebiu Camilar -The Medal


I

From the deep skyline one could see the endless row of poles that ran along, spanning the river, climbing the big hills descending into the plain, threading their way through the village, turning a sharp corner at the crossing, to set off again, proudly, in a straight line, ascending other hills, up to the misty mountains.
That is how Mother Ilinca Raiului saw one day the row of poles. "Where on carth, she was wondering, "do they get so much copper for all this wire?"
Until then she used to pass by the poles without even noticing them, apart from the row she made until a pole was fixed in her own yard. Then she had said to herself: "It's probably for the gents who talk to each other over the wire! One gent at one end, and another at the other, shouting until they can hear each other."
But when she saw that by stretching a wire, up to one's house, by fixing a sort of glass to the beam in the ceiling and turning a little gadget, one had light - mother Ilinca was flabbergasted and crossed herself.
When, in the end, the light flooded her own house, the cock began to crow on the porch to announce the guests, so Mother Ilinca hurriedly took the broom and started cleaning, so that people should not catch her with a grimy house.
Someone did come: it was the lineman, the man that clambered up the poles with climbing irons. He came in, looked at yellow light, and at Mother Ilinca's wrinkled face, and said:
"Yes, that's better! from the tinder-box to the sun hanging from your ceiling."
Mother Ilinca could not make out why the young man was so stirred when he spoke.
After wishing her many happy days, under the flooding light, he bowed down and kissed her hand. This, Mother Ilinca could not understand at all. To kiss her hand, after giving her the sunlight... All she could mutter was:
"You look so like my man, Dormidon. That's how he used to blush, just like a young girl."
Later, after the lineman had gone, she stood in the middle of the room, laughed to herself and exclaimed:
"Lord!... may the golden cross strike me!"
All of a sudden she was sorry that she was so old and alone to enjoy such a great happiness.
She went out in the road and started boasting to the neighbors that she had sunlight in her home, but everybody shrugged their shoulders: "What about it?" As if they didn't have it as well!
She came back home and as soon as she sat down on the bench she was all in a sweat for very shame: she had stammered in front of the lineman and had scuttled about the room just like a drunken hen, going and boasting in the road; instead of twirling about like a top and show the boy what a good housewife she was by cooking an overfull of alivenci* for him. The lineman should now have been feasting at her place.
Had anybody asked him to dinner? She could not be easy in her mind and went to watch the neighbours houses.
Everywhere one could see the big light through the curtains. Where was the lineman having his supper? When she saw him enter the house of Oachim Palamar she started to blame herself: "You see, Ilinca, yes, yes, that's the trouble with you: you always wake up too late! Why should the wife of Palamar have the pleasure of feeding the man tonight and not you?"
To cut a long story short, Mother Ilinca Raiului was wild with rage. It was in this mood that she returned home. As soon as she turned on the switch and light flooded the room, her eyes rested on her husband's picture.
Their life together had been very short. Not more than three years. Just when they should have enjoyed a better life, the emperors had started to make faces at each other. From making face they passed to swearing at each other and then they took up the sword, so that innocent people were steeped in blood up to their necks. Her man had put in his bag a hunk of fried corn mush, stepped onto the porch and said: "Perhaps I'll see you again, Ilinca", then at the gate, swallowing his sadness, "but if don't come back, marry anew." He left and never came back.
After many years, when the emperors were glutted with blood and had shaken hands over the blind and the crippled, over the cemeteries and the burnt-down villages, after the emperors had been well fed, Mother Ilinca was called, one day, to the mayor's office.
The employee steed up. He handed her a kind oh icon with gold edges. Oh!... how Ilinca started when she saw the image of her husband on that icon. Daring, in his military get-up, on a white horse, galloping towards a big fortress and cutting the air with his sword.
"Infantry - hero Dormidon Raiului", she spelt out.
After that the employee handed her also a copper medal on witch there was an eagle with sword in beak and big wings sculling against the winds.
"They are both beautiful, the icon and the medal", whispered Ilinca, but I would prefer to have my man back."
"Now, now..." said The employee, "he died for..."
"For the emperors to wallow in luxury. Poor Dormidon, at least if he'd perished at our frontier guarding it."
That was many years ago! Ilinca was then very young and was left with the feeling that Dormidon was galloping through the ages towards the big unknown fortress. She could not imagine how the photographers had caught him galloping through the air, sword in hand, towards the many towers in the far distance. And this is how Dormidon had been galloping for ten years, for twenty, for thirty years without ever reaching his goal.
In this way did Ilinca smother the pain of her husband's death in a beautiful delusion. Time, that artful master, worked on her heart.
The gold round the edges of the icon had worn off. The paper had become yellow with age. There remained out of the brave Dormidon riding towards the emperor's fortress but a tiny bit of the sword, a stub of arm and the silky tail of the flying horse. But time could not obliterate the copper medal! It was still on the wall, in the same place, the wings of the bird sculling the winds.
That evening Mother Ilinca took the medal down from its nail polished it until it shone brightly in the light.
She also wiped all the pewter and bowls, because it was a shame they should not shine like a mirror in a house so full of light.
"That's how it is, yes, indeed..." mumbled Mother Ilinca, picking up the old paraffin lamp and staring at is, as if she were bidding it a last farewell. "There was a time when you used to shine like a star in a place of honour."
As she was putting the lamp behind the stove her hand touched the tinder-box and she remembered the lineman's words:
"Yes, that's better! From the tinder-box to the sun under your roof!" "Yes, that's really how it is!" muttered Mother Ilinca again. And late in the night she kept on thinking about it.
She remembered how her parents used to kindle a light by striking the steel against the flint. But that was ages ago.
She recollected that when she was only a chit of a girl, dark forests with oak-trees as thick as barrels stood where the green fields were today. That is where her father had fixed his home, after having been left a widower: moving with live-stock and all, to become the keeper of those murky solitudes.
In those surroundings had Ilinca spent her childhood, where she could see the deer running in herds, and where in the long winter nights she could hear the wolves howling.
The fire had to be looked after, like the apple of one's eye, especially when father was called away, for days and nights, to other parts of the wood, to protect the deer from the wild beasts.
Once, after putting a new log on the fire, they had all fallen fast asleep.
What caused them to sleep so heavily they never knew. They were perhaps lulled by the rustling trees or by the heat. The fact is, they woke up very late. The fire was out. The half-burned log looked like the carcass of a beast. They stood dumbfounded in the middle of the room. The thing what gave them heat, boiled their food, supplied them with light on long winter nights had perished. To borrow fire from another homestead as out of the question. To do so would have meant to cut through high snowdrifts and to face the danger of the wild beasts.
First, the water in the wooden jug froze, then the water in the cauldron; after that, when night came, they all shivered in the dark huddled together on the cold stove. This went on for three nights and three days. Then they started rubbing two pieces of wood together, but is not avail, for they were too weak to kindle a flame.
Their father taken food for a long trip. Before leaving he head pointed to the long horn lying in the corner of the room and had said:
"Only if there is great danger, children! Do you hear me? Only then, come out to the porch and call me" I am not stopping in any one place. Blow a blast first to the east! If I don't answer, then to the north. If again I don't answer, blow hard on the horn towards the south."
And as father said to be called only in case of danger, the children were obedient, preferring to endure the cold and the blackness of the night.
To cheat their hanger they chewed maize grains, acorns and beech masts.
But it was the darkness they were most scared of. They knew that wolves don't come to a lighted window. But round their cottage they heard them howling, even heard them scratching at the door and their fangs gnawing at the threshold. And in their short sleep they dreamt of the fire as a white youth coming from fairyland.
When they could stand the cold and hunger no longer, and especially the terror of the dark, they opened the door but, seeing the threshold naked by the wolves, they banged it to again.
They climbed then to the loft and fixed the horn in a chimney towards the east. It did not sound out loud, it merely wailed; it wailed a long while like short sobs.
"Come, daddy! Come! Are you coming? Come! Are you coming?"
Then another of children started blowing at the mouth-piece, but with the same result - just short sobs.
Ilinca then took her turn; filling her lungs with air and tightly closing her lips over the mouth-piece, she did not let the horn sob.
She just blew a long blast, over the peaks that looked like fortresses and over the valleys. It was like the low of the bisons of long ago aroused from their bed of leaves. And that is how Ilinca blew at the mouth-piece and aroused the bisons, so that the whole wood seemed full of lowing and moaning. And after she stopped you could still hear the bisons, fainter and fainter, farther and farther away. When the lowing sank into a depth of silence, the children listened to the east. But father's horn could not be heard. Ilinca's lips were all sore and the mouth-piece was stained with blood, but she would nor give in, her thoughts bent only on the oncoming night which presaged wind and storm. Il had also started to snow... But father's answer still did not come.
Ilinca then fixed the horn in a chimney facing north. On that side the bisons did not wake up, but it seemed that the hills and rocks moaned. There was no answer on this side either. She turned then southwards; when the snow-storm grew worse, she fixed the horn in the western chimney, but the expected voice did not answer.
That is how she came down from the loft and nestled up to her brothers and sisters in the frozen blackness: and the snow-storm kept on howling under the roof and the cottage seemed to rock and from the chimney came the moaning of the old man Chilicot, crucified head downwards; he seemed to moan and pray that the bricks should come apart and he come inside the house, as fierce birds with iron beaks were at him.

II

Mother Ilinca remembered well that it was only towards the evening of the next day that they heard father's horn ringing out clearly in the quiet that had fallen after the snow-storm.
And her father knelt by the fire-place and fixed the tinder on the flint and struck the flint with the steel and the sparks flew out and buried themselves in the tinder and one saw the smoke going up like a silken thread.
"The fire, look at it!" they all shouted.
Then the flame leaped up from the ball of tow and all were quiet, staring at it frisking through the wood shavings, playing like a spirit, creeping under the tiny branches licking them., making them crack, hiding, appearing again, strong and red, until the whole fire-place was full of leaping tongues of fire...
Then they lighted the tallow light on the stove.
The room was again nice, warm and cosy.
"Truly," Mother Ilinca said to herself, "yesterday the tinder-box, today the sunlight, just by turning a switch."
"Would it not have been proper to make an oven full of alivenci like she did on every holiday of the year? Why had she not thought of it before?"
For a long time she tossed about in her bed.
"Tomorrow may be too late", she thought. "The lineman will have finished the work in their village, and have gone to other villages, right under the Petraria?"
As soon as she woke up she went out in the road; the lineman was stretching wires across a neighbouring yard.
She came back quickly, heated the oven, poured maize flour in a bowl, added boiling water as she knew it should be done and started to mix and knead it.
Then after placing the alivenci on ig cabbage leaves, on the hot bricks, she laid the table, carefully swept the room, the entrance and the yard, up to the gate, as on Palm Sunday. The sweet smell of the alivenci flew out of the open windows, mixing with the fragrance of the trees and the roses.
"Yes, indeed... from the tinder-box to the sun under your roof," Mother Ilinca was thinking anew, and then remembered the nights of old. How many other things had happened to her, until she came to see this golden sun brought on wires, heaven knows where from? What power gave it birth? Who had first got the idea of building these machines to bring the sun along copper wires? Yes, and how much copper wire! All these questions she wished to ask carefully.
"I just strutted hither and thither like an old crone in paradise!" she justified herself in front of the lineman.
"Has the light gone out?" he asked in surprise.
"No, bless you, my dear, no... I just wanted to ask you to come and have some alivenci. I should have done so yesterday, bat I strutted about like an old crone in paradise. When will you come to honour my home and table?"
"As if we lived in caves", Ileana Prunaru said in a loud voice, as was her wont. "For luncheon the gentleman is our guest."
Mother Ilinca would have loved to scratch her eyes out. She would have loved to say a few scorching things to make her feel utterly ashamed oh herself, but it wouldn't do to wash one's dirty linen in front of a stranger.
"Then, tonight," she said again to the lineman. "I have such nice alivenci, real beauties. I shall spread honey on them..."
"Tonight he is our guest," cut in Saveta Vrabioi, "and honey-spread alivenci can be made by any housewife."
"Perhaps tomorrow?"
"No, I'm sorry," answered the lineman regretfully. "Tomorrow I shall be far away, at Bozia, for another electrification. Thanks all the same for the invitation."
Poor Mother Ilinca! The world seemed to be whirling round her.
"If it's like that, well then..."
She turned towards Saveta Vrabioi and Ileana Prunaru and glared at them wrathfully.
She would show those bitches how one could steal a guest.
Tomorrow morning, before sunrise, she would get together all her women friends, they'd all climb on the hayrick, and start saying:
"Hey, you hens! Get up, the lot of you! Wake up, you, lazy lot, you have slept so long that the earth is making worms under you! And your arms will become like spindles and your legs like broom-sticks!"
"You look at us as if we scalded your children," said Ileana in her loud voice.
The lineman had his eyes upon Mother Ilinca and seemed to guess her thoughts.
"All right, all right," said Mother Ilinca retreating. Back home her yard looked empty; she threw a stone at some white hens cackling on the porch. Perhaps this would have been her life's last happiness. She stumbled over the water-can and upset the water in the middle of the room.
"That is what happens to me, Dormidon," she wailed, looking at the stump with the sword, at the silky tail of the horse running to the emperor's fortress. "What happiness have I had since you left me to follow the emperor's bidding?
"It would have been better of the wolves had eaten me when I was small and roused the forest with my horn."
The ray of youth which had warmed her soul with the coming of the electricity had cooled off; utterly weary, she sat on the bench.
"I must be going dotty. Instead of sitting here I should be seeing to the shroud for the last journey," that's what she said to herself sitting in front of the puddle. Then she took the cooper medal, the only cherished thing she had in the world, down from its nail and looked at the bird and how it was sculling against the winds.
Why should electricity light her nights?
Was that what she needed?
And the lineman, he really could have come to her place after all!
Didn't he see how old she was?
If only to honour her cooking, because alivenci do not spring from water, like frogs.
All of a sudden she heard a friendly call out the porch.
"May I? May I?"
"Oh! Bless you! Come in! Come in! Well, but what about Ileana Prunaru?"
The lineman laughed lightly, blushing as was his habit:
"You don't know how I love alivenci!"
"You don't mean it! Is that so? Very good, that's fine!"
She asked him to sit down at the table, uncovered the hot alivenci, and let him eat without bothering him, though she would have loved to ask him how the sunlight was brought on wires and where all copper had come from.
"I am going to worry you with a question, young man! Look..."
And Mother Ilinca looked outside, along the row of poles. She saw them wending their way out of the village, jumping over the river and climbing the big Talion hill.
"Where do they start from? Have you ever been there, at the end? What is there? Where does all the copper for the wires come from?"
The lineman smiled at the candor and beauty of her question.
"Mother Ilinca! That is where I came from, from the end of this line of poles. It's more than 40 kilometers away, it takes a day and a night to walk the distance."
"What? A day and a night? No such wire... Where the length of day and night's walk, 'tis nothing. There are other lines that run the length of the country! Some of them go over the mountains and big rivers, to carry light to the towns and villages.
"They drive engines and machines, they light up schools."
"Good Lord! The sun on wires. The one that first thought of this must have been o great astronomer! Who is he? Is he still alive? If he is still alive people should go to him and bow low. They should spread gold linen and silk for him to walk on. Isn't that so?"
"Yes, that's right!"
How old Mother Ilinca marvelled listening to him! She understood many things, she even understood how electricity is born out of the rushing water. After cleaning the table and throwing the crumbs to the hens, she was ever so happy.
The lineman's voice was still in her ears.
"You see? That is how the light on wires first came about! How far from the tinder-box is the sun under your roof, how far from your childhood of which you were telling me this evening. A very long way - a road of tears and sweat.
"But in the end we brought the light, because it is ours."
Still, one thing she was not able to understand: from where did the engineers, who brought the sunlight, get so much copper that the lines should stretch across the whole country?
She looked at the medal on the wall, and she had an idea which she discarded promptly, passing her hand over her forehead as if to brush a bee aside.
"If every one would give a helping hand... every one what he has... " again she chased the idea away.
"How silly I am! I should become a laughing-stock, and at my age too! But what if I tried?" she asked herself towards the evening.
She wiped the copper medal well, then looked at her husband's portrait. She was sorry. Il seemed to her that by taking the medal out of her house she was also forsaking her husband's memory. But she knew herself too well: if she did not make up her mind quicker, she would probably give up.
She wrapped the medal in a handkerchief and went out quickly.
Saveta Vrabioi's house was all lighted up.
The lineman was sitting at table, Mother Ilinca saw in front of him, among the dishes, a mound of coins.
"A... the horned devil, she’s beat me again," she said to herself, turning towards the door. Ileana Prunaru was just coming in, ringing a bell and saying in her loud voice as was her manner:
"Search... search... how I've searched... I thought those devils of children had lost it... but no... here is the bell. Take it, it's pure copper like they use for big bells.
"You understand, sir! Copper wire over the country. From me a bit... from another, another bit."
"You sluts!" shouted Mother Ilinca. "One can always sec copper coins and bells!"
"But copper buttons on a leather belt?" cut in the man from the house. He lifted the wide leather belt, put it aside and laid a handful of buttons near the other things on the table.
"What about this?" said Mother Ilinca proudly. "Did you ever see a copper medal? Take it, sir. Copper medal. Take it to where they melt medals, and throw it into the melting-pot. They'll get about an ell of wire out of it."
They all looked at the copper medal lying on top of the copper buttons and coins; the eagle seemed ready to lift them up in his claws, to fly up to heaven against the winds.
"It is really very beautiful," said someone .
"Of course," cut in Mother Ilinca proudly. "Coins, buttons and bells one can always see! But a copper medal one cannot."
"Such love," said the lineman blushing up to his ears. "Hearts full of love. How did you think about it? It looks as if you all took counsel together."
"That is all we have," added the man of the house. "Can a few buttons make up for the light of the sun? I have been thinking about it for a very long time."
The copper medal was shining, with the coins and the buttons gathered under its wings.
Since then, every time Mother Ilinca meets the poles, she wishes them good luck and God-speed across the country.
She does not know which piece of wire has been made of her copper medal. That is why she believes it is everywhere - wherever the wires stretch and the sun shines at night.