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from the November 2012 issue

In Our Backyard

Very early in the morning, Ion would help Mrs. Ignătescu put the carpets onto the frame in the yard and beat them with a switch or a stick. The dust rose and spread through the yard like mist—the rabbits took fright and scattered, while the chickens withdrew indignantly to their coops at the far end. Mrs. Ignătescu’s dogs barked. The racket woke all the tenants. Mrs. Năstase brought her carpets as well. A window opened, and a shrill voice inside maintained that a pregnant woman needed peace and quiet. This made Mrs. Ignătescu see red: Berta had no husband but still dared to be impudent. Ion beat the carpets fiercely and laughed, his face sticky with dust and sweat. The neighbors cursed as they breathed in the dust and sneezed.  Mrs. Ignătescu placed her hands on her hips. Then the milkmaid appeared, hugging her milk canister protectively as if it were a baby. What a cloud of dust! Old man Căpriţă came out of his little room with a bottle; he coughed (demonstratively) until he started to choke. The other tenants also came out to buy some milk. Ion didn’t care: he struck the carpets with even more gusto. Mrs. Ignătescu’s voice trumpeted above the others. On some occasions, the trashman would arrive at the same time and ring his bell so that everyone knew they could bring their garbage out; they made a terrible noise as they dragged their trashcans across the yard. Another quarrel flared up, since Mrs. Ignătescu wasn’t going to be the only one to give him a tip. In the end she took her carpets back indoors. Mrs. Năstase only had two, and Ion, now feeling tired, did a superficial job on them. Little by little the din subsided. The chickens crept back, after many a detour, and the rabbits started nibbling again at the slightly rotten wood of the carpet frame. A hen busily led her chicks about, clearing a way for them by striking to left and right with her beak. It was quiet once more: all that could be heard was the cackling of hens and the sizzling of pots and pans in the kitchen. One day Mrs. Năstase bought a rooster. Mrs. Ignătescu’s hens would also benefit from it, but nothing could be done about that. It was a splendid cock! The hens shuddered with pleasure when they first heard its voice and saw its big flame-red crest.  As for the rabbits, they were downright servile in the way they welcomed it. It was brought there by a tall, rather strangely dressed young man, who released it in the yard and then, instead of leaving, went timidly up to the carpet frame and began to examine it. His tight-fitting black trousers, like those traditionally worn by peasants, and matching black top gave him the appearance of a gymnast. He had coarse fair hair, with a pale oval face. He raised his arm and touched the horizontal bar. He seemed unhappy about something. A bold rabbit nudged his bare foot with its moist, sticky nose. The youngster jumped, but looked down and smiled, and stroked the rabbit’s gray fur with his heel. Then he stood on tiptoe to see if his head reached the bar, but the sudden movement caused him to bang against it. He stepped back with a shake of his head and trod on the rabbit, which went scurrying beneath the walnut tree by the fence. Mrs. Ignătescu’s voice rang out from somewhere, and the boy ran off. The very next day, though, I saw him prowling around the house and trying to peek through the boards in the fence. Maybe he missed the rooster. Late in the evening, he came back with two other boys dressed in the same way and walked into the yard with an air of determination. There they wormed their way over to the carpet frame, and after looking at it for a few moments made some signs to one another. One of them hung onto the bar as in a gym and lifted himself up straight as a candle. The second twisted himself round it like a snake and did a few somersaults. Meanwhile the third stood guard. Silvery in the moonlight, they took it in turns to frolic on the bar. I didn’t tire of looking at them. What skill, what strength and agility! But their play ended badly, when the bar began to creak and crackle under the stress and finally broke into pieces. Nothing happened to them; they all landed on their feet like cats, then made a run for it.

When Mrs. Ignătescu discovered the deed, she raised a hue and cry all through the building. She was both indignant and puzzled. Who could have broken the bar? It wasn’t just a piece of rope, after all. She took it out on everyone. Where would she beat her carpets now? Although I was questioned too, I kept my mouth shut. I looked understandingly into her protruding eyes but felt overjoyed at the turn of events. I’d be able to sleep longer in the morning from now on. Soon Ion’s turn came to be hauled over the coals, but he had no way of knowing anything. May his hand drop off, whoever it was who did it! And, completely unflustered, he picked at his nose with his rough fingers. No need to get so angry, it wasn’t such a big deal. He was no joiner himself, of course, but any joiner would immediately know what to do. The rooster tried to climb onto the broken bar, which now hung almost to the ground, but it lost its balance and fell awkwardly among the hens.

I felt calmer for a few days. Nor was I the only one. The hens cackled happily around the carpet frame, hunting for beetles in the rotten wood; the rabbits ran all over the yard, chased by the rooster; and Mrs. Ignătescu’s yelping cur got into the habit of watering one leg of the frame.

The gymnasts reappeared one morning. They carried freshly planed planks of wood on their sturdy shoulders, along with axes, hammers, pincers, and a box of nails—as if their task was to erect a scaffold, not to repair an ordinary carpet frame. They had clear blue eyes, and their movements were precise and coordinated as they cheerfully set to work. The whole yard echoed with their hammer blows. Their solemn labor gave the impression of a dance. Now and then they smiled in mutual understanding, but no words ever passed between them. We soon grew used to them, and no one, not even Mrs. Ignătescu, interfered in any way. The rabbits scurried fearlessly among their bare feet; the hens jumped onto their shoulders and pecked at their food when they took a break under the walnut tree. The days passed, but the work did not progress much. No one said anything to them, although maybe someone should have. For example, why did they move the legs of the carpet frame closer to each other, and raise them a meter or more higher than before? How would Mrs. Ignătescu’s Persian carpet still fit on it? Some steps would be needed to reach the horizontal bar once it was in place. What puzzled me most was that Mrs. Ignătescu made no attempt to hurry them. When she came back from the market with a full shopping bag, she stopped and looked at them for a few moments, then went indoors without saying a word. Sometimes Berta came out with her big belly, and as far as I could tell there was a certain attraction in the way she looked at the joiners. Indeed, you might say that everyone not only got used to them but actually took a liking to them. Or anyway that’s how it seemed to me; it wouldn’t be the first time I was mistaken about such things. The work went slowly. After some time, they seemed to be playing more than working. They performed head-over-heels and mid-air somersaults, walked on their hands, and leap-frogged over one another. Or else they had fun teasing the rooster on one of the poles of the carpet frame.  For all its haughtiness, it looked more like a painted crow on the end of a stake, not daring to jump down and only just keeping its balance by spreading its wings. No one said anything to them. I saw Mrs. Năstase pass alongside them, concealing her laughter with a hand held to her mouth. Once, when they were away somewhere, I went up to the frame and realized how they had been spending their time. They had driven hundreds of nails into the wretched stakes, until the box they had brought with them on the first day was empty. But soon they came with another box, and the hammering started up again at an even faster pace. They boarded the legs of the frame from top to bottom. With what skill they drove in the nails! They forced me to change my mind: the kids certainly knew their trade. The heads of the nails were colored in various shades, so that together they formed all kinds of ornamental patterns.

Autumn came. Mrs. Ignătescu, with Ion’s help, laid in provisions for the winter, and at the far end of the yard Mrs. Năstase boiled down reserves of tomato sauce. The rabbits multiplied on all sides. One evening Berta was taken to the maternity hospital. The joiners went about their business as slowly and meticulously as ever, though with a somewhat greater resolve to finish it. The day came when they finally fitted the crossbar—a thick, beautifully shiny beam, into which they had driven nails in such a way that it seemed to have black and red painted stripes. The acrobats turned around it, hammering in the last nails. They strengthened it in the corners with diagonal slats. Then, for the first time, the strange thought occurred to me that our carpet frame had become a gallows. It was still rectangular, but stood much taller, and in the end was beautiful to look at. I for one liked it like that; I had no need of a carpet frame. But why didn’t Mrs. Ignătescu or Mrs. Năstase protest in any way? However hard I tried, I couldn’t make any sense of that. Where would they beat their carpets in future? One thing was perfectly clear: only an acrobat using steps could climb up and hang a carpet there. But how would he then beat it? One day when the milkmaid made a delivery, I asked her what she thought about the transformation: it’s a gallows, not a carpet frame any more. She laughed good-naturedly, poured some milk into my jug and went on her way. Should I tell Mrs. Ignătescu that those tricksters had taken us for a ride? It’s true that she didn’t know they’d broken the frame in the first place. At the time I’d been as silent as the grave, so was I now going to…? Still, it was really getting too much—here in our backyard. Mrs. Ignătescu will kick up hell, I thought with some pleasure. Those kids had better watch out! She’ll stir up the whole neighborhood against them…. The acrobats had just finished decorating the frame with flowers and multicolored streamers. One had a reel of thin cable on his arm—a kind of silk cord. He twirled it around, closing now one eye, now the other. A rabbit slowly nibbled at his heel. I won’t tell Mrs. Ignătescu a thing; she can see for herself. It was she who hired them, after all. Now it’s too late. Perhaps she wouldn’t even believe me and would take it out on me instead. That kind of thing’s happened before. I opened the window, to let some cool air in. The sun was setting. The young men took off their jerseys and went to wash at the pump. They were cheerful, more cheerful than ever. They splashed and jostled one another, laughing with their mouths wide open. Their wet bodies glistened with a reddish hue in the sun. Mrs. Ignătescu herself brought them some towels. They gamboled around her, splashing her with water as they chased after one another. Caught up in their playfulness, she began to giggle as if someone was tickling her and slapped them on the back with her chubby hand. She moved her broad hips jauntily. Mrs. Năstase came out too, together with her husband, Mr. Năstase. Ion picked at his nose and broke into a slanting grin. Everyone was laughing, happy in the extreme. Then the young men suddenly reined in their friskiness. They became serious too abruptly. They cleaned their jerseys of dust and wood chips and put them on again. Mrs. Năstase sent the brood of chickens off to their coop with the help of a stick. The rabbits went of their own accord, attracted by the cabbage leaves scattered there. Only the rooster stayed behind. The young men made some gestures by way of asking Mrs. Năstase for something. Of course they can, if they’ve finished their work. They thank her and make a smooth bow. Mrs. Ignătescu jauntily goes inside, taking Ion with her, and the two of them come back dragging the large Persian carpet. The young men give her a grateful look. Oh, it’s no bother really! They hurry over to help her, and with a few deft but powerful movements spread the carpet out at the foot of the gallows. They look at one another, exchange smiles, and get the performance underway. First they warm up with a few graceful cartwheels and mid-air somersaults. Then all three at once make an amazing jump onto the crossbar and, as on a trapeze, execute some figures worthy of the greatest acrobats. They twirl round the bar, fluttering like so many wings, throw themselves into the air, hang from one hand, raise themselves up, feet pointing skyward, then drop their heads and—as everyone holds their breath, dizzy with fear—grip the bar with their feet and remain suspended like bats. After standing stock-still for a few moments, Mr Năstase begins to clap his big hands together. Bravo! Mrs. Ignătescu blots her temples and sweaty brow with a handkerchief.  Oof! What emotion! The young men drop down, still fresh as daisies, and turn to face me. Just then old man Căpriţă appears too, shriveled and hunched over. He’s been ill and has a dry cough. The acrobats look toward me. I feel awkward: I'm not sure what they want. The others also stare at me, and Mrs. Ignătescu lets out a contemptuous snort. Fortunately, though, she looks at the young men with such fondness, and they soon start their movements again. This time they dance. The sun sinks ever lower, casting a reddish hue on their cheeks. And how their eyes glimmer! At first there is something stiff and solemn in the way they dance. Grave faces, concentrated expressions. They circle the gallows slowly, coiling elastically round the poles in silence. It’s a snake dance. Everyone looks at them excitedly, perhaps even with a little trepidation. Little by little their movements become stronger: the somersaults are faster, their faces no longer so serious. Their eyes sparkle more and more. Their arms move almost furiously, their bodies convulse, and the dance takes on a frenzied character. Faster and faster and faster. Their faces, tinged by the last glimmers of the sun, have something diabolical. All that can be heard now is a long-drawn hissing of snakes. They stop suddenly—right in front of me, very close to the window from which I am looking out. They make a deep bow. Exhausted but happy, hands clinging to their sides, they stare straight at me. They smile in a candid, childlike manner. An indescribable joy blossoms in their eyes. They are so tall, as if they have trickled down from somewhere. They stand straight, right there in front of me, until I can no longer contain the smile of approval for which they have been waiting.

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