THE STATE OF NORMALITY
By DOINA HORODNICEANU
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© 2002 Doina Horodniceanu
Marta wasn't exactly beautiful. The Jeanne Moreau type. The kind of woman that whatever she does, she will never be vulgar. She had long thick, rich auburn hair, and a sensual, full-lipped mouth. Her intense, green eyes were so luminous and penetrating that when she looked at you, you felt she could see right into your mind. Rather plump with strong, round breasts. While holding the fish she showed her naked arm tanned brown - a matte brown that I have never seen before. I didn't want to touch her body but her soul - that deep part of us that never changes, never gets older, and never dies. Touching her mind and soul, I wanted to touch mine. I remember when I saw her the first time; it was a few days before this picture was taken.
She lifted the pack from the coach seat and covered the damp patch on her back. She tucked her hair behind her ears and waited for the conductor to open the doors. I waited for people to unload their bags. In front of me a child's diaper needed changing; the mother's rump blocked the aisle, her bag split open at her feet. Her boy was inconsolable; he was sweating through his tears with his eyes jammed shut. His mouth opened again and again with short acute cries. From the back of the train a man's voice came thickly:
"Stop torturing him; just kill him at once!"
Marta stepped to the platform from the train and looked for tunnels in the crowd. She put her head down and burrowed; the bags caught on elbows and hips. Hundreds of people were disembarking; they clotted together at the exits.
We were only half way there. After the bus took us to the little harbor, we would have to wait the rest of the day for the only ship that went to Portitza carrying the daily water and food supplies.
It was already dark when we boarded the ship. We were fifty to sixty people on that vessel and I worried it would not make it to the next coast. We would reach the island in the morning. I was watching the silver jump of the dolphins when I heard Marta’s voice.
"Tudor, take a picture of these dolphins, will you?"
"OK, Marta, after I snap the boat."
This is how I learned her name. Our two groups laid down on the deck, close to each other. I circulated a bottle of Vodka between us and I pulled out some proletarian food from a hard paper package trying to get acquainted to her friends.
"Hey, you guys, over there, would you like a sip?" I said, handing the bottle to Tudor.
"Yes, thank you!" The bottle was making the tour of the group, ending up in her hands.
"So, same destination, right?" I asked.
"Yup, where else?"
"Did you make any sleeping arrangements, there?"
"No, you don't need to. It's an empty place. Few fishermen and plenty of room for the tents.”
"Have you been there a lot?"
The bottle reached her again.
"This is our fourth summer at Portitza.” Tudor said. “Where else can one go for vacation?"
"It's almost the edge of the world.” I said. “At least for us. We heard about the Danube Delta’s beauty but we never saw it. Not this far anyway. My girlfriend Ioana convinced me to come, but I’m not sure I know what I’m doing.
"Hey, listen, we noticed you on the train. Let's introduce ourselves, this is Ioana, here are Matei, Emil, this is Nadia and I'm Petre. Nadia is Ioana’s best friend and Emil’s wife."
"Nice meeting you. I am Tudor, this is Victor and this is Marta."
"You see, Ioana plays the cello, and she needs to practice every day. That's why we carry this coffin with us, in case you wonder - it's not the grandma."
Matei started playing the guitar. It was an old Cat Stevens song. The song stretched its long, cold arms around us. It was devouring me the way a bunch of crabs would eat their prey. Then Marta sang - about rivers traveling through her nights, about dead trees’ buried under birds’ songs, I don’t remember what she was singing about… I fell asleep next to her voice and I dreamed of her.
In the breaking morning Ioana woke me up:
"Come on guys, you’ve slept enough, we’ll be there in ten minutes."
With our eyes still stuck with sleep and uncombed hair, we dragged our backpacks, sleeping bags and food containers off the ship, all together in no order at all. Everybody was still sleeping.
"We'll see you around!" I mumbled.
There was something mysterious and frenetic about this place, though. A slim piece of land where the Danube river ran into the sea. The right shore watered by the salty sea's waves, the other one washed by the river's sweet water. A light free wind blowing through the peasants’ yards and the camping tents. The rhythm of drums and guitars coming from the beaches interrupted by the seagulls’ cries. When the night came, phosphorescent waves broke in horizontal lights. The smell of grilled fish and tons of Vodka mixed with a sense of freedom. The rhythm of bossanovas, fados and reggae, the philosophers’ and poets’ drunken voices coming from the garden parties. And in the morning light, when the fishermen’s boats anchored the shore, tired glowing shapes laid on the beach. Later, the rising sun diminished the shining contours of bodies and sea, embracing everything in its burning light.
It was my first vacation on the island and I hated everything - the fact that I had to wake up at four o'clock in the morning, the heat and the stink in the train; but more than anything else, I hated Ioana, who made me go on that trip.
The house we stayed in that summer was a poor fisherman’s house, very tiny – almost a cabin; but very clean and right on the beach. I used to watch the waves breaking in front of me and listen to their monotonous sound. Their regular movement caused me to doze off in the back yard covered with greenery and fishnets stretched to dry. I slept my deepest and longest sleep in a long time, in the shadow, surrounded by all the stunning perfumes of different flowers. I rediscovered the sensual pleasure of swimming, even though I was such a bad swimmer. In the afternoons I watched the sunset while listening to Carl Orff’s “Carmina Burana”. The desperate need for love and freedom fitted the Portitza atmosphere. Sun and sea represented my ideal happiness.
One day at noon the heat was heavy like a lead coat. Emil and I took a boat and went fishing. Both in swimsuits, lying across the boat, with our legs hanging in the warm water. Emil picked up the fishing rod, old, worn out, with rotten bait and threw it three meters away.
And…all of a sudden…a strong toss in the water and the stick started to croak like a crow. The pike, because it was a pike, pulled the boat as if it was a simple pan. I watched Emil with the corner of my eye.
“Do you want to do it by yourself?”
“I can’t,” he answered. “I don’t know how to use this kind of rod. You are the specialist.”
“OK, then. Take it easy. Let the rod loose a little bit. Let it slide along the boat, until it comes handy…”
Tired, the pike came along like a log. It was beautiful. It was the finest piece I’ve ever seen. I thrust the knife into it and we both pulled the fish in the boat. Emil had tears in his eyes. We hugged each other, laughed and lighted cigarettes. Our hands were shaking.
“See what’s Nadia going to say,” he smiled, and after awhile,
“You know what? Let’s say you caught it.”
“No way…” and I felt that the moment of warm friendship was gone and I was again envious on him. The biggest pike I ever caught was eight kilos. This one was, by far, double.
That evening was the first and last time I saw Emil loosing his temper.
When he arrived, carrying the pike, gasping under its weight, Nadia gave him a cold look, smiled with indifference and said:
“Nice. Pretty nice… Must have around three kilos?”
He threw the fish down and started to shout in a broken voice, changing in acute tones as of a teenager:
“Then you go to hell if this is only three kilos…. I’m going home, I’m going to hell!” and he left, mad, towards the water.
“You see,” Nadia said. “He does this all the time. Go after him; he is able to drown himself… And tell him… Tell him it was five kilos…”
I weighted it. Three times, ten times, I don’t remember. It was 13.550 kilos.
“Take a picture with it,” Emil said later.
“After all we both got it”
It wouldn’t be fair. It was his. So Marta took a picture while cleaning it.
Other pictures show longhaired boys and beautiful girls naked on endless dry white beaches covered with seaweed. I was definitely happy there. After all, I found everything very harmonious, easy, opportune. One other day we took a boat and went fishing again. We stopped for a little while on a tiny island. In the middle of it was a small church. Its solitary beauty and simplicity impressed me. At the entrance was an incredible fresco representing a group of women – very gracious. One of them looked voluptuous, her leg and thigh covered with a long, heavy piece of fabric, in a way I would not have expected to see in a monastery. Inside the church were other frescoes. The representation of the saints struck me. All of them were decapitated, holding their heads in the hands, as a symbol of their profound faith in God. They removed their heads to avoid any temptation of doubt! Their necks had no trace of blood or violent beheading. Decapitated Saints jumped all over, escaped from The Last Supper, with their heads unscrewed and detached.
An old, skinny woman in a black, simple dress, her white hair hidden under a scarf, bent on her knees in front of an icon prayed, crying. Her bare feet were covered with mud.
A little bit farther in the middle of a thicket was an abandoned cottage, small, washed-blue, with a brown rush roof. Inside, the walls were white and the rooms cool. I stopped for a few minutes in the bedroom and I had a dream: I was living in this summerhouse with Marta. I thought we might be happy there. At least for a while.