In the summer, Cesar undertook the task of chief engineer for building a raft out of sawgrass. His father worked as a combine driver for the village cooperative, so Cesar felt entitled to the technical position. The rest of the boys agreed and smoked their fathers’ pocketed cigarettes laboring diligently under Cesar’s constant barking. After two weeks of daily work, when they launched the wide, flat vessel into the River Bistrița, the raft sank unceremoniously before any of the boys could even jump on it.
Fuckin’ idjit, they howled and left Cesar standing on the bank to contemplate his failure.
A few days later in Barna’s wheat field, while swinging a thick tree branch above his head and singing wildly a dirty limerick, one of the fellas lost his grip and hit Cesar square in the head. That Sunday, comrade Henpeck died in his yard playing backgammon with Cesar’s father. Before even putting the old man in the box, the kin divided up the hens, the rabbits, and the pig. Cesar’s father was to get the feet if he agreed to slaughter the squealing beast. The family was going to have head cheese into the fall.
At the viewing, Cesar enlisted two of the fellas to play a joke on the mourners. They tied fishing gut to old man Henpeck’s index finger and ran it up and over the sculpted wooden partition that separated the altar from the priest’s quarters in the back of the church. There, behind the partition they all waited.
The first women to step up to the coffin were professional mourners; they made the rounds, wailed sorrowfully, and lost their legs and consciousness for a few moments, before indulging in the wine and coliva given as charity in the name of the dead. When they leaned over the old man, crossing themselves incessantly and cursing some sort of devil or other, Cesar and the fellas pulled up on the fishing gut. Old man Henpeck never looked so resolute and stern in his warning from beyond the grave. His arm was raised in an accusatory reproach to all the sinners. The ladies collapsed. The fellas exploded into a laughter that resembled cries of pain from asthmatic donkeys.
Flying out from his private quarters, the priest gave the boys a swift kick to their arses:
March out of here you spoiled pigs, he screamed. Marş! Get lost… back to your bloody pigsties, you filthy rats. Marş home, double time and in three moves you vermin.
The fellas stumbled out, doubled over from the pain of laughter, with the priest in tow still kicking at the seats of their pants and cursing. They high-tailed it all the way to the edge of the forest, whistling and roaring and slapping one another on the back. There, they rolled cigarettes and smoked while on their backs, letting the summer warmth wash across them and disappear into the forest just behind. The tale, naturally, grew beyond the truth until it became legend.
On this same land laid the remains of infantry during the big retreat from the Eastern Front in ’44. But the earth swallows up all inequities with time. It smoothes it all over with wheat and corn and wild mint and peasant children telling tall tales in the summer wind, smoking their fathers’ tobacco on the sly.