The Book of Perilous Dishes (novel extract)
Ismail Bina was getting ready to climb into a street carriage, for which reason the gates of the Beylik had been opened, and that seemed a good moment to me. If I had at least had a little phial of aqua phosphori, I would have set fire to something, but as it was—I had no option but to run for it. When the Arnaut moved away a little, I threw myself blindly forward, running with difficulty, for all my life I had never gone barefoot. My legs were still numbed. People got out of my way, and soon I had made my way to the gate. All I had to do now was to hide somewhere and at that moment a heap of baskets seemed the most suitable place. I had almost escaped. I was in the street. I undid my shawl and took out the powder, but a hand grabbed me by the scruff of the neck, and moments later I was standing in front of the carriage, broken like a hollyhock.
Ismail looked at me reproachfully, and the ruffian attendant holding me pressed his fingernails into my flesh. I remember that Ismail wore a white turban, snow-white, with a garnet glimmering among its folds. Looking back, I realize that he was a man with much charm, but at that time my standards of beauty were different! The man drew a puff on his pipe and then the bluish smoke, which had wandered through his flesh, filled my eyes with tears. The Turk didn’t seem annoyed. He asked me gently why I had run away, what I had been lacking until then. I must confess that his words almost made me feel ashamed. It crossed my mind that perhaps he didn’t even know that I had been kidnapped. Perhaps he imagined that those two scoundrels had bought me in the market. I had no answer prepared. And, apart from that, I could hardly breathe because of that hand gripping me mercilessly.
People had formed a circle around us, and Ismail, sensing that the crowd were expecting something from him, stretched out a gloved finger towards me and pushed my lips open, staring contentedly at those round about: “Aha! You’re the one from last night! Ugly girls are always choosy! See what a she-boar we have here!’
The laughter round about encouraged him. Never before had anyone denigrated me in such a way. Never had anyone hurt me so badly. And there was also the leather of the glove, which was still pressing my lips. The people round about seemed to approve.
I could have sunk into the ground and never come back. However the humiliation woke me up. Out of all the supporters I had ever had, the face of Master Iulian appeared bright and clear, reminding me of one of his teachings. Strengthened, I yelled with all my power, drawing the sound from the base of my stomach and even from the starving coil of my guts: ‘Ismail Bina Emeni!’
When you call to someone in the midst of a crazed multitude that is itself roaring, there is only one rule: to truly believe that you are the only speaker. Consequently I let the words flow without haste, and after a pause I repeated his name at a higher pitch, to make him listen to me. I had nothing to say to him, but I wanted to make him look at me, to show him my teeth, for, although he had opened my mouth, he was still looking at the crowd round about. Meanwhile, a voice resounded across the courtyard:
Ismail Bina on the road to Vidin
Heeded not the Prophet’s words and fell into sin,
Sold his shalwar for a bottle of wine,
Went on the booze and got drunk as a swine!
Out of all the people round about the place,
Only Ismail Bina has an arse for a face.
There was a rustling among the crowd and a great laugh rose to the heavens. Many of them knew the song that a boy’s voice had sent resounding all along the street. Some immediately joined in. The voice passed by the carriage like the string of a dulcimer.
A hint of unease crept over Ismail Bina’s face. In the end he looked at my teeth and couldn’t find his words. The crowd had gathered closer and closer around us, and that alarmed him somewhat. The waves of smoke rose from his long pipe directly into my eyes, causing them to itch terribly, which made me grin without mercy, ignoring all Maxima’s advice. From the Turk’s mouth nothing came but blabbering, for there is no one that can speak normally after seeing my teeth. Some get their sentences mixed up; others forget what they want to say; and the most dumbfounded of all utter words that don’t exist in any language. In that moment of stammering, a yell came from behind me and the attendant relaxed his grip. A few people were pushing their way towards us. I seized the opportunity, and confident that I would never meet him again, I deftly shook the powder into Bina’s pipe. Then, taking advantage of the sparks that were blown all over everyone and of the resulting crush, I ran straight for a cart that was heading swiftly towards the bridge.
- The carters had no idea what the matter was with me, but when they saw me hanging onto their cart, they asked me if I wanted to get to the Olari district, where they were going. In any case they weren’t interested in asking questions, because I found them already engaged in a heated discussion. They were talking about Cat o’ Friday, and they soon had my hair standing on end with terror. The witch who had come to eat up the joys of Bucharest was going to be caught and hanged.
‘I don’t believe she’ll see the end of the week!’ said a man with missing teeth. ‘They’ve read a curse on her head in all the churches!’
This argument made me smile, and the man noticed.
‘Don’t you laugh! When the baker in Obor was murdered, the Most Reverend read from just one book! You understand? Just one! And two hours later they caught the murderer!’
What more could I say? The street showmen were just part of a long line of prophets. The portrait of the witch was in the Church of the Olari district, and that filled my blood with little poisoned darts.
‘If they don’t kill her on a Friday it’s pointless, because she can come back to life!’
‘Seemingly on Fridays she turns into a cat and goes right to the altar.’
‘The Prince’s cook sells a potion that protects you from all spells!’
The men stopped the cart outside the church, and urged me to take a look at the witch.
In the porch there was a painting of Hell, and in the middle of it a pot of pitch was bubbling on the fire, with a the head of a woman, wracked with pain, emerging from it: an old woman with bulging eyes and drooping, dog-like ears. Beside her there was Cyrillic writing, so orderly that even I could understand the words: Cat o’ Friday.
When I left that place, I realized that I had lost my bonnet, and my shawl was almost unravelled. My cape looked more like a dishcloth, and my feet were red. And all that after just the first night in which I had been left alone in the world. One night had been enough for me to find out about the evils of life.
This thought was going through my head when it seemed to me that a breath was reaching me. I could sense the call; I could hear the rustle. In the movement of the city the breath and voice of Maxima were revolving. A deathly pain hit me right in the chest.
- Maxima had been both mother and father to me. Without her, I would have been nothing. She took me to Iulian’s school and opened my eyes to life. Everything that she told me proved to be right. She had a way of saying various things that I had doubted at first, but that, reinforced over time, had become foundation stones.
‘Despised love,’ she used to say, ‘rebounds against you, like a cannon-ball!’
How could you believe her? Especially as at that time I doubted everything.
She was a tiny woman and so agile that I couldn’t keep up with her. She used to tell me things like that while running about the garden or through the rows of millet. Despised love kills you! How I laughed. And that laughter nearly killed us. Both of us.
Maxima called me Pâtca or Pâtculiţa. To this day I don’t know if it means anything in particular, because every time I asked her she just answered that it was a name for someone exactly like me. For all the love that she bore for me, sometimes I had the impression that she despised me just a little.
‘Ehe, Pâtca, Pâtca! You have to have your ears wide open with people, because your whole future depends on them!’
Every time she gave me a piece of advice, her eyes filled with a pity that I can still sense today.
Maxima was the mistress of the millet field. She was called Maxima Tutilina, in honour of the goddess without a temple. It was a name that she had inherited, for all the names of the Satorines had been decided long ago, before Maxima or any of the others were born.
She knew the use of seeds and of every shoot that grew in the earth. And that wasn’t all. In my memories, she lives on as the only person capable of bringing whatever she started to a conclusion. She could move anything from its place, and I don’t just mean plants, which she could wrap round her little finger. Sometimes I would be talking with her and out of the blue someone would appear, a stranger who would sit down on the couch for a few moments, only to disappear again as fast as they had come. Especially at night, the odd candle would pass through the salon, or a shawl would float by, making waves. Maxima read dreams, she made elixirs and ointments, and she could always cure me of a headache with two words that, even though I still remember them today, are no longer of any use to me. On summer evenings she would write on the door of the house Laco Fulvus, and whoever tried to enter—because uninvited salesmen sometimes came, or the odd neighbour with nothing better to do—was scared to death by the ghost of a monstrous dog. The middle of the day was mine. She had put it into my head that I was to be a sort of guardian of the noontide.
‘When you grow up,’ she would say, ‘you will be able to summon sleep. Especially when the sun begins to tremble, at its highest point.’
Sometimes she would talk for hours on end, until I began to see what she wanted me to see. And in the evening we would enter the house, where we would deck ourselves out in beads and veils, to frighten the spirits resting in the mirrors or in the transparency of the windows, in the phials of poison and in the flicker of the fire that never went out in our house. Maxima had gauzes, frocks, and trinkets like no one else. How she decked herself out! She wouldn’t leave the house without her pearly bonnet, which she held in place with a turban of fabric finer than a spider’s web. And under it she wore her hair plaited in twelve pigtails. Sometimes she would run at night through the millet planting statuettes of Averruncus and other signs to trick Sator, but especially to show me how many ways of survival there were.
Most of her time she spent on my instruction, to open my mind, so that might hold the rank for which she believed I had been made.
Remember, Pâtculiţa, all your power is in your teeth! Squint as they look, it is in them that the strength of our lineage lies! Their waywardness shows us that we must escape from commandments! For what is a person that does what another says? A slave! Worthy not even to be spat on!
I looked in the mirror and I began to take heart. I had long been proud of my squint teeth, which had so scared Ismail Bina!
Maxima had made plans for me for all the rest of my life, so much so that if I had happened to fall asleep and to wake up after ten years, I would have known exactly what I had to do.
‘When I am no longer around,’ she would say to me, ‘make your way to our houses in Murta Street in Bucharest, houses hidden in the thick of the city, where our wealth is—chests bound shut with silver straps! There you will find dresses woven from elf hair, singing beads, enchanted greenfinch feathers, and books, including your book, which will finally open your eyes. There too are written the names of all the Satorines. Ehe, that will be another sort of life,’ she would say, puffing herself up, ‘one that you can’t even dream of at present! But remember! Before anything else, you have to find Cuviosu Zăval, who is the only one able to show you the way into the old houses!’
As if it would have been a complicated matter to come by an address! Brăila the blind man had managed, so surely I could, who at that time thought that everyone was stupider than me. For years on end I had heard those words and I knew very well what I had to do. Even if I had set out blindfold, I would still have found my little uncle’s shop. Except that I had arrived late. Zăval was dead and all Maxima’s advice was of no use. It had gone to the winds. She herself was floating at that moment over Braşov, and I was unable to carry out any of the sacred missions for which she believed I had been born.
Once more I went to the church with the porch where that hag was burning in flames, and I stayed there till the tears dried on my cheek.
No glory was left to me, no dream. Only the legend of an evil hag.
For Cat o’ Friday, the hunted witch, was me.