Negotiations under water

Gorgona

The schooner anchored not far from them was in danger, and several sailors had fallen into the sea. Marina, who was able to swim, jumped, together with a few others from her ship, to save them. She caught one of the sailors and after a while, the one she was towing didn’t struggle anymore. She was relieved to notice this, as she had started to get tired fighting with him. But suddenly both her one and the other’s ceased holding on their rescuers and tried to reach quickly the side of the boat… all at the same time. Couldn’t any of them use their common sense judgment?

The boat, as expected, was in danger of capsizing now, thing noticed by the two rowers. They looked one at the other for one moment, almost like reading each other’s mind in their glances, then it seemed they agreed instantly upon the best thing to do in such a situation. Each of them approached the sailor who was the closest to him and threw a good punch, knocking him out in order to save the boat from getting turned upside down. The unlucky boxing bags let the boat go and went, unconscious, to the bottom of the sea, while another man gave a hand to one of the sailors, helping him to get into the boat suddenly relieved of its additional load. The one who had gripped the fender was also helped to get inside.

“Now I’d really need Gorgona’s help!” Marina thought. “Or at least if I knew the secrets of sponge fishers!”

She had admired always the sailors of the Greek Islands who went for sponges and corals, to the depth of the sea. She could swim, but she wasn’t an expert in diving and swimming under water… and there were two of them to be caught quickly!

Her thoughts were focused on a prayer while she was looking for bubbles to indicate where those men could have sunk. She finally saw some bubbles and dove in that direction, catching a mass of curly hair, then she pushed back to the surface with her prey. The boat was, of course, still close, so once that stupid sailor caught, they took hold of him and she took a deep breath, diving again… not too sure if there were really bubbles what she had seen this time.

Marina was diving deeper than the first time, searching for the man she couldn’t find. The water made a sort of a semi – opaque curtain, unlike in the gulfs of the Aegean where she had tried, for fun, diving together with her brother, many years ago. She wasn’t sure what to do next, how and where to look for him, if what she had seen weren’t his bubbles… “God, if it is Your will… please let me find him!” she prayed.

God? No, somebody else she would have to pray for the sailor’s life… because she was bewildered to see a beautiful girl, with a lily-white face having the features so well known around Thessaloniki, waiting there for her, in a blue-green attire… and with a golden comb in one hand. Was it for good or for bad that she was seeing Gorgona, so far away from her native seas?

Diamandis had told them he had caught a glimpse of her after a storm, while she was sitting on a rock of the many scattered around Monemvassia, and that he hurried to answer to her question before she asked it. It was, no doubt, the wisest thing to do, as their ship had been spared then. Now Marina was going to do the same:

“Hail, my queen!” she thought, carefully choosing her words. “Your brother is ruling happily for much more years than I can count, sending you greetings!”

It was exactly what Gorgona wanted to hear, but she didn’t expect to hear somehow the mermaid’s answer.

“And your brother is happy in my arms. Little Dora is my lady-in-waiting. You are doing well where I sent you. Have you told my story to these foreign sailors?”

Marina was strangely happy to hear these. At least the ones she had lost were far from any regret and pain now. Maybe it was better for a family of sailors to be at Gorgona’s court than in that Paradise with milk and honey and angels. She answered immediately:

“Yes, my queen, I did, and they liked it. They have other mermaids in their legends. My queen, please give me this sailor’s life, if it is upon Your will to spare him like you did with me…”

“It might be, but what are you willing to offer me in exchange?”

It was a fair question; only… what could she offer to the mighty queen of the sea who had everything?

“You have already my life. You have marked me as your own six years ago, in the shipwreck. I am yours to serve! What else can I give you?”

“Your tears?” came the unexpected answer.

“I am not allowed to cry. I am supposed to be a tough sailor boy,” Marina protested, without understanding.

Gorgona laughed:

“You aren’t opening your mouth either… and still we are holding a conversation. I want your tears, the ones you will cry for a lost love, exactly like the tears I had shed some time ago!”

“You have them… and anything you want from me!” she said earnestly, thinking that any sacrifice was worth for saving a life.

Besides, what could the mermaid really want? Her tears for a lost love? Will she really fall in love some day, and will it be like in the knights’ stories the girls at the monastery were telling far from the nuns’ ears, a broken heart’s tears? Well, a broken heart might be a fair price… for somebody else’s life! And in some stories or songs… even a broken heart healed after a while.

“Well, we’ll see what else I might want from you in the future – because, indeed, you are mine to serve… and you’ll do it well from the deck of a vessel, for many years to come. I have a plan for you!” Gorgona said.

This was nothing new to Marina, who had always believed that it was a reason why only she had been chosen to live after that shipwreck. And the reassurance that she will be a sailor for many years, was more than she could wish to hear. It meant her dream would become true some day.

“Thank you very much, my queen, I’ll try to be worth of your favours!”

The mermaid motioned her to come closer. When she did, Marina received a strange embrace… Hers? Then she felt in her arms the texture of a sailor’s clothes. She had been granted her request! As she reached the bottom of the sea, with a firm push she hurried to rise back at the surface, still holding well that sailor. They would survive. Both of them! And now she had more than the confirmation she was seeking about her destiny… she had Gorgona’s blessing.

The long awaited portion of fresh air came just in time, and the boat was nearby.

All rescued sailors aboard the boat, Marina could gather her strength to follow them. She was tired, but happy. The rain on her face helped her to overcome the tiredness and become again her usual self still while on the boat. The satisfaction of having saved two lives superseded everything else. Well, almost everything. And the other happiness she was hiding deep in her soul made her forget the rain, the pain in her tired muscles. When she finally succeeded to get inside, she heard that there was another man missing. Strangely, but these news didn’t surprise her.

“He wasn’t here around”, she said with a small, epuised voice, “otherwise I would have found him when I dove. He might have gone down somewhere else.”

The ones who wanted to look for the missing guy might try, but she had the feeling that they wouldn’t find him. Not even the body!

“How was he like, the missing one?” she asked the sailor who was closest to her.

Before hearing his answer, she suspected what this will be: the officer was a handsome young man, exactly how Gorgona liked to choose her devoted guards. This was the reason why she had accepted to grant her the second sailor’s life: she had already taken her tribute, a young officer.

Marina returned to her ship with a large smile on her face. The officers had ordered to have blankets and tea ready for the brave rescuers.

“Thank you very much for allowing me to go with them, Sir! That was really my call!” she told briefly the first lieutenant.

Seeing him around gave her a new idea – something she wanted to know since her underwater adventure. She approached him and asked with an apologetic smile:

“Sir, do you happen to know how deep was the water where we had to dive? I mean I reached the bottom… finally… but it seemed… strange.”

Actually, something else seemed really strange to her, but she couldn’t say it: “how was it possible to meet Gorgona so far away from her native Aegean or Ionian waters? And so close to the harbour!”

“You dived to the sea floor?” the first lieutenant was surprised. “From memory I’d say around 30 feet or thereabout. Have you felt lack of air? This might be the strangeness you are telling about.”

Nobody would ever learn about the negotiation under water. It was her secret – and even if she was foolish enough to say anything, who would believe that she received the mermaid’s blessing?

– THE END –

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A Greek legend

Gorgona

Marina didn’t know about pagan gods, who had been buried into oblivion by the Christianism in Greece, and about the heroes, there were legends circulating from an island to another. These legends were her favourites, but they were far simpler than the original ones, of course. And the one about the mermaid in whom all the Greek sailors believed was the one reminding her about “Colomba” and her family.

”I promised you a story too, and I’ll tell you my favourite one, about a mermaid. Once upon a time, there was a great king in my country, you’d name him Alexander. King Alexander conquered almost all the world, this is why people called him THE GREAT. He gathered all the wise men from the occupied lands and asked them if they knew a solution that he could live longer and keep his strength, because he still had some countries to take over, and all of them to be converted into an unitary empire, each nation learning from the other. 

The wise men looked at each other, because only a few chosen ones knew the answer: it was difficult, but not impossible for such a brave king. He needed to obtain the Immortal Water from the edge of the world, in the place where two mountains were endlessly moving, actually fighting like two rams, head to head. Many princes and knights had attempted to get it and failed, dying caught between the two fighting mountains. And if they succeeded to cheat the mountains, they were killed by the one-hundred-eyes sleepless dragon who guarded the water spring. 

King Alexander did not need any other challenge, he decided to try his luck and obtain it. He had a cherished good horse, as quick as the wind, and riding it, armed with his best weapons, he arrived to the edge of the world, where the mountains were fighting, opening and closing their heads so suddenly that no bird could fly between them. But his strong horse succeeded, however without his tail, which remained caught between the mountains. Then he prepared his bow and quickly sent the arrows to the dragon’s eyes, giving afterwards the finishing coup with his sword. So he killed the dragon, took water in his cask, watered his horse and washed his face from the beast’s blood. The mountains, on the road back home, weren’t as dangerous anymore. 

The wise men had told him to keep the water for when he is hurt in a battle, for a miraculous recovery to impress all his enemies. Perhaps this was his mistake, because when he went home, he kept the cask with Immortal Water without telling anybody what was there. 

His sister, Gorgona, found it and drank it. When the king checked, after a while, the cask was empty, so he got angry and asked what happened. His sister confessed. Mad on her, he threw her out of the window. The castle had view at the sea, so she got into the water. But she couldn’t die anymore, as she had drunk the Immortal Water. From princess of the conquered world, in her brother’s shadow, she became the princess of the sea, its ultimate ruler. She has a big palace on the bottom of the sea, full with treasures, and the most beautiful guards. From having spent so much time in the water, swimming quickly from a corner to the other of oceans and seas, her beautiful feet got transformed into a fish tail, or maybe a dolphin’s. 

At sunset, after a storm, the sailor on watch of any ship on any sea might see her on a rock, or rising from a wave, combing her hair with a gold comb, and looking into a gold-plated mirror. Good seamen, pray do tell me, is King Alexander still alive? Is my brother still the King of the World? she asks with a sweet voice.

Sometimes, the sailor laughs with contempt, telling the truth:  I have heard of no King Alexander in this world. He died more than one thousand years ago. Then, in deep anger, Gorgona throws her comb, moves her tail, and the waves grow, the storm starts again, with greater fury, and the biggest wave sinks the ship, not giving back any man or goods aboard. She takes everything.”

Marina looked at him and ended her story with the optimistic part:

Sometimes the sailor on watch knows what to answer, and he bows in front of her respectfully: Hail, o, Princess of the Seas, your brother is ruling in peace for many happy years, but unfortunately his country has no seas. Then, the uncomforted sister gets happy, extends her arms to embrace the ship and save it, lets her black hair free on the water and the wave is appeased. The whole crew hears her beautiful song of praise for her brother, and they are protected from any sea-related harm.”

Marina stopped again, sighing. Gorgona took all her family, and not even in exchange of the wrong answer. Little Dora was now her companion, her brother, her father and uncles among her guards… Was aunt Lena the leading cook there too?

She might take any sailor she wants, even without asking. No question was asked to anyone aboard “Colomba”, my family’s ship,” she said with a choking voice. “She is the queen of the seas, she has this right and sometimes she uses it just because.”

– THE END –

 

NaNoWriMo aproape de sfârşit

NaNoCana

Şi pentru că mai sunt câteva zile de noiembrie, scorul meu personal fiind strâns – încă nu ştiu dacă voi câştiga sau nu concursul – vă ofer un fragment dinAlte vâltori ale vieţii” :

Într-o zi, când mă întorceam dintr-o vizită la Celia, însoţită de fetele mele, care abia aşteptau să-i vadă pe finii noştri, m-am oprit în faţa unei brutării nou deschise, parcă nevenindu-mi să cred ce specialitate vedeam expusă:

– Nu se poate! Farinata! am rostit eu în genoveză, simţind cum timpul se întoarce şi eram din nou cu tuşa Ilinca la piaţă, sau în Genova republicană dinainte de blocadă, când foamea nu devenise încă etern tovarăş de viaţă al soldaţilor.

Specialitatea aceasta, din făină de năut, ulei şi apă, coaptă într-un vas special de cupru, numit “testo“, reprezenta secretul exclusiv al genovezilor. Nici în Piemont, nici în Toscana, în Veneţia sau în Cisalpină nu găsisem aşa ceva.

– Vă invit la o gustare inedită, din ţinuturile mele natale! le-am spus fetelor, în timp ce intram în brutărie.

Patronul avea spre cincizeci de ani. Soţia lui, cam de vârsta mea, îl ajuta să frământe. S-au bucurat să audă vorbă de acasă, şi i-a pufnit râsul când am întrebat dacă nu au cumva şi sos de nuci, altă specialitate căreia îi duceam dorul de douăzeci de ani. Aşa ne-am împrietenit cu familia Prandi. În timp ce stăteam de vorbă, împărţisem farinata între toate trei fetele. Copiii familiei Prandi, un băiat de aproape paisprezece ani şi o nea-stâmpărată de vreo unsprezece ani, începură să le ia la întrebări pe fetele mele înainte să apuce măcar să se prezinte. Se arătară extrem de jigniţi auzind că Tina şi Sofia răspund în toscană, deşi ei o înţelegeau cam în aceeaşi măsură ca ale mele genoveza.

– Dacă mama voastră ştie genoveza, voi de ce nu ştiţi? întrebă Carla, duşmănoasă.

– Ea s-a născut la Genova; noi aici, în Venice, Illinois! replică Tina, despre care Luigi spunea că moştenise apucăturile lui din şcoală.

– Păi atunci ce să te mai mire, surioară? făcu şi băiatul, dispreţuitor. Cum să ştie genoveză unele care stau cu veneţienii? Nu cumva aveţi şi porci de austrieci grămadă peste voi, la fel ca în Europa?

Cu siguranţă ele nu înţeleseseră toate cuvintele, însă nici nu ştiau de rivalitatea între cele două foste republici maritime. De ocupaţia austriacă, ştiau; întotdeauna în casa noastră se dezbătuseră ştirile fără ascunzişuri.

– În Europa este altceva, răspunse Sofia. Aceia sunt porci de ocupanţi, într-adevăr! Austriecii de aici sunt oameni cumsecade. Au fugit de împăratul lor, cum au fugit şi ai noştri de împăratul francezilor, care voia să cucerească lumea întreagă. Trude este colega mea de bancă şi ne înţelegem bine.

– Te pomeneşti că ştii şi veneţiană, continuă băiatul, pe acelaşi ton.

– Bineînţeles că şi veneţiană, şi toscană. Le învăţăm la şcoală pe amândouă. Mai ştim şi altele, dar asta nu te interesează pe tine! se zbârli Tina.

Fireşte că „mai ştiau şi altele”, din moment ce îşi petreceau timpul liber fie cu Lena Sina şi frăţiorul ei cel mai mic, Iorghi – Georges, cum fusese botezat de părintele Nunziato – fie cu verii lor cherokee, şi toţi copiii mei îmi moşteniseră talentul pentru limbi străine.

Fu rândul genovezilor să se uite unul la altul miraţi şi să lase politeţea deoparte. În timp ce Carla răspundea, ţepoasă, că ce folos de „altele” dacă nu ştiau genoveză, Corrado ne-a întrerupt discuţia ca să mă întrebe în limba lor:

– E adevărat că ele merg la şcoală, că învaţă toscana şi veneţiana?

– Da. Şi engleză, franceză, matematică, istorie, geografie – tot ce se mai învaţă într-o şcoală! Tu nu eşti la şcoală aici?

– Nu. Dar acasă am fost, vreo patru ani.

– De ce nu vorbesc genoveză fetele tale? se miră scignua Francesca.

– Nu mi-a trecut prin minte să le învăţ, fiindcă n-au cu cine vorbi. Sunteţi primii pe care îi văd din 1802 încoace. În casă vorbim toscana, soţul meu este pe jumătate toscan, pe jumătate veneţian. Voi nu v-aţi gândit să trimiteţi copiii la şcoală?

– Costă mult. M-am gândit la Florissant, la călugări, pentru Corrado, însă poate la anul, că acum, cheltuielile cu drumul, ratele la pământ, deschiderea brutăriei…

– O şcoală rurală înseamnă mai mult decât nimic, şi în primul rând ocazia ca amândoi copiii să înveţe engleza şi franceza. Până strângeţi bani suficienţi pentru ceea ce aveţi de gând, vă propun să îi lăsaţi să treacă râul în fiecare dimineaţă şi să vină împreună cu finele mele, Marie Louise şi Roxanne Gagnon, la şcoala rurală din Venice. Mă duc acum să le aduc pe fete şi pe părinţii lor, ca să ştiţi cu cine merg. Dacă sunteţi de acord, banii nu sunt o problemă. Două pâini pe zi de fiecare copil vor acoperi cheltuielile cu şcoala. Eventual câte o farinata în plus, din când în când, am râs eu, pofticioasă. Podarul s-ar putea să nu refuze nici el plata în pâine.

– Şi crezi că profesorii vor fi de acord? întrebă brutarul, cu speranţă în glas.

– Vorbiţi cu învăţătoarea, care altfel nu v-ar fi propus! am zâmbit eu, umflându-mă puţin în pene. Nu vor învăţa veneţiană, ci în orele acelea vor avea porţie dublă de franceză. Am însă o condiţie importantă, scignuo’ Baciccia, m-am întors spre tatăl care speram că-şi poate disciplina copiii, deşi nu auzisem cât de înverşunată fusese discuţia celor mici. Să nu aud comentarii despre veneţieni, genovezi, austrieci şi indieni, cu atât mai puţin şicane sau bătăi pe tema asta! Veneţienii au construit şcoala, austriecii plătesc şi ei, la fel ca toată lumea, învaţă acolo şi câţiva copii cherokee.

– O să le explic asta! Eşti sigură că nici veneţienii n-or să-i provoace?

– Dacă nu încep ei primii, sunt sigură că nu. Doar au venit spre vest auzind, seara, la focurile de tabără, balada mândrului genovez. Am trăit alături de ei aproape douăzeci de ani. Ştiu ei bine că învăţătoarea lor este genoveză.

– Cum, ai avut curajul să le cânţi încă de la început cântecele noastre?

– Da, şi cele ale Republicii.

De parcă ne-am fi înţeles din priviri, dorul de ţinuturile natale răscolindu-i şi pe ei, gura Francescăi s-a deschis, amintindu-şi strofe răzleţe:

„Mândre genovez, fă o fântână

Cu lanţ de aur şi găleată de argint

Ca frumoasa ta să vină să bea.

            Toate fetele vin să bea apă de acolo,

            Cea mai frumoasă nu vine,

            Tatăl ei o ţine închisă !”

Întâi eu, apoi şi soţul ei ne-am unit glasurile. Pe copii, şi ai mei şi ai lor, îi pufni râsul când ne auziră cântând împreună melodia veche. Cât de departe eşti, Genova mea dragă!

Pe Luigi îl pufni râsul când află că mi se va mări numărul elevilor, şi privirea lui spunea ce auzisem cu voce tare cu alte ocazii: „Păi sigur, numai tu erai în stare să aduni veneţieni şi genovezi sub acelaşi acoperiş…!”

– Într-adevăr, numai eu aş fi fost în stare să pun capăt, aici, rivalităţilor multiseculare, i-am replicat. Suntem cu toţii americani şi nu contează ce limbă vorbeşte fiecare acasă.

Odată cu sosirea genovezilor, se mai lega încă un colţ deşirat din inima mea. Abia aşteptam să mă întâlnesc cu ei din nou, să-mi povestească cum fusese şi în 1814, şi câte altele.

Fragmente din “Prețul libertății”

owlynano1

(Avertisment: fragmentul se referă la aspecte din Santeria) :

Bătrâna pregăti o baie rituală, adăugând salvie, rozmarin, busuioc, gălbenele și petale de trandafiri – plante aromatice pe care le preferau Oggun, Ochun și Yemaya. Unul dintre ucenicii ei, un carteron doar un pic mai mare decât Andrea, a fost rugat să o asiste.
– Ai de gând să îl inițiezi? întrebă tânărul, intrigat de faptul că subiectul discuției, cel care avea să beneficieze de baia rituală de purificare, era alb.
Doar Concha și toți ceilalți santeros repetaseră de atâtea ori, în cursul anilor, că nimeni care nu are sânge african nu poate afla numele africane ale sfinților și ce se ascunde în spatele a ceea ce vedea oricine cu ochiul liber, interpretând în spirit catolic. Lui Goyo i se părea că tocmai Concha cea respectată se pregătea să facă o greșeală gravă. Ori spiritele îi revelaseră ceva deosebit în legătură cu acest tânăr, menit să fie excepția care confirmă regula? Și merita riscul?
– Nu în felul în care ai fost tu inițiat, Goyo, îi explică ea cu răbdare. Nu ar înțelege asta. Spiritele l-au ales, însă nu ca să ne urmeze calea; capul lui nu va primi binecuvântarea pe care au primit-o ale noastre, și tu nu ești aici ca naș. De fapt, știi că ai fi încă prea tânăr pentru o astfel de responsabilitate. Tu ești doar ajutorul meu, să înveți ce este de făcut când sufletul are mai mare nevoie de purificare decât trupul.
Continuă, alegându-și cu grijă cuvintele:
– Mă vei asista și vei recunoaște diferențele dintre ritualurile folosite la cele două inițieri de care ai avut parte și cele pe care le vei vedea acum, menite doar să vindece, să curețe, să purifice, și să îi facă pe Oggun, Ochun și Yemaya să își recunoască fiul și să îl ajute mai mult de acum înainte.

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Logo of the month of November

Cidrul a venit primul și a fost turnat frățește în patru pahare.
– Pentru viață, și pentru ca marea să dea înapoi ce i se încredințează! toastă cel cu cercelul, iar ceilalți ciocniră cu el imediat.
– Și pentru frumoasele sirene care îi salvează pe naufragiați, răspunse Andrea în franceză, ciocnind prima dată cu Fiona, apoi și cu ceilalți.
Doar gândurile lui știau că primul toast nu era doar pentru ea, ci în primul rând pentru Gorgona. Și înainte de a sorbi, vărsă trei stropi pentru sufletele camarazilor de pe “Marie Gallante”. Era și aceasta o formă de a o include pe Gorgona în mulțumiri și urări de bine.
Fiona roși la auzul toastului neașteptat. Andrea se întrebă ce îl atrăgea la ea, fiindcă multe femei erau frumoase, și totuși îl lăsau rece. Cucerirea femeilor nu era sportul lui preferat, așa cum fusese al unor prieteni de pe nava scufundată. Tânărul venețian nu era afemeiat, și îi lipseau îndrăzneala și siguranța de sine pe care le aveau aceia cu femeile pe care le întâlneau în porturi.

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Și acum, un fragment despre botezul unei corăbii:

Preotul binecuvântă moneda de argint și o așeză sub cârmă. Hurricane Thad rânji, puțin disprețuitor. Tradiții prostești, o monedă irosită. Și corabia mai avea una sub marele catarg, tot spaniolă, fără îndoială, pusă la ceremonia de numire și lansare la apă, de către primul proprietar, să îi poarte noroc și ca nava să știe că va fi îngrijită și respectată. Dacă Sol Picador era atât de înfumurat încât să creadă că, prin faptul că i s-a acordat comanda și partea cuvenită, corabia era un pic și a lui, vrând să adauge propriul ban odată cu numele ales de el, treaba lui. Asta nu schimba lucrurile cu nimic.
Părintele Jacques Bonnet continuă netulburat rugăciunea, știind că moneda de aur e a bisericii și a lui. În asemenea condiții, să tot faci sfeștanie de corabie! O pereche mai săracă nu dădea atât la o nuntă.
– Ne rugăm Sfintei Fecioare și sfinților Mihail, Nicolae, Petre, Clement, protectorii marinarilor, să îi dea tărie acestei corăbii să meargă înainte, învingând furtuni și dușmani, și să se întoarcă cu bine în port. În numele tuturor celor care au navigat la bordul ei în trecut și în numele celor care vor naviga la bordul ei în viitor, le oferim mulțumirile noastre pentru protecția acordată goeletei până acum, suntem recunoscători că întotdeauna ea a găsit adăpost de furtuni, întorcându-se cu bine în port, și fie ca întotdeauna să se întâmple așa!

Danube-related legends: Braila

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The city of charming Danube

Braila is a beautiful city located on the shore of the river-maritime Danube. This meant, especially a while ago, that ships which went to sea could enter the Danube at Sulina, where it runs into the sea, and sail up to Braila; and it made the city an important trading center for the whole South-Eastern Europe, as the goods loaded there 500 years ago went to Istanbul, farther into the Ottoman Empire, or, why not, to Venice or to Vienna – to the latest, on the Danube itself. A city full of history and legends, and having a so mixed population and an unique architecture – what is not to love about it?

The streets are drawing half a circle, leaving from the Danube, rounding the city and arriving back to the Danube on the opposite side. The old buildings reflect their former owners – rich merchants of Turkish, Jewish, Greek, Armenian, Russian or German origins – and a part of the city’s history. There is blue and green everywhere – little parks, the big Public garden, another big garden, Monument, to the outskirts… Outskirts where a Salt Lake is still pouring his spa-blessings to all people in pain all round the year…

My words are not enough to describe its beauty – but for the present visitor, this beauty can be seen a bit less. It is there, under the dust, in the historical houses which the wolf from the three piglets story can blow down at the third breath, because their ownership is discussed in courts or because neither the mayor, nor the present owner have money to invest in their rehabilitation. However, several writers have immortalized it in their prose and verses – Panait Istrati being the most known for the prose. He enchanted my early teen years, and given that I had the opportunity to spend enough summer holidays there, with my cousins, I started discovering the city step by step, with its beauty and legends.

The bandits had hidden in the swamps and on the corners of the Danube where we were bathing and eating roasted corn. The ship crews were still competing on Saint Mary’s feast, having as prizes ducklings and a piglet. The songs, Romanian, Greek, Lipovan, sometimes Turkish, were resounding here and there, a sign of the multi-culturalism of the city. We were discovering with delight each place which had been written about before.

Meanwhile, years have passed. The Great Island opposite the city became an important agro-industrial center, getting cultivated with corn and vegetables, some swamps had been drained and given back to agriculture, and the legendary charm is starting to fade away. The city has changed too, and the shadows of my youth can be seldom found in the old neighbourhoods or on the falaise… It’s just a shadow of what once had been, taking with it the tumultuous life of a joyful, multicoloured city with an unique personality, nicknamed once “a leg of Paris”.

Where is the hustle and bustle and the boiling joy of the holidays of the cosmopolitan city of a while ago, sung by the writers ? Where are the Greek and Lipovan songs – but where is the city’s life? The words have died, the teen age and the souls together with them. None of the characters I loved in Panait Istrati’s and Theodor Constantin’s books could recognize anymore the places they had lived in – not because of the new buildings, but because the soul of the city doesn’t exist anymore; neither the Danube seem to be the same…

The doors of history are shut, and I try to open them every time I visit the town of my youthful dreams, with songs and memories. Why it’s only me, out of the little crew of a while ago, who gather pieces of life, not lived or even rejected by those around me, in order to bring them alive again in my heart and in my stories, with dances and songs, with the memories of my ancestors? Who can understand the thirst of far away distances which is burning me for a long time, bridging fraternity with Panait Istrati and his heroes, the insatiable desire of other horizons? No matter how changed, I still love the city of charming Danube-related legends, my Braila of an eternal teen age…

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The city of poverty shadows

My friend and my cousin were born in Braila. My cousin was part of the youthful crew exploring the city with me during our summer holidays, my friend wasn’t, but their stories are the same. Living there, feeling the prison of the dying city, which has lost its traditional attraction. For them, it is the prison of their lives: first the industry declined, the big factories closing one by one. They don’t see the beauty of the old city, they see the challenges of the new one: first, pollution, while the factories were still working; now that they aren’t anymore working, the Danube comes black anyway from oil leaks from the ships or from a shipyard, once the fame of the city, now working barely at half volume.

Happy it’s still working, as the big paper mill factory and the big chemical processing plant which gave nylon fibers and other things to all the country aren’t anymore. The big machine tool plant isn’t working anymore. One of the biggest clothing factory, famous abroad too, is slowly shutting down section by section. Even the spa at the outskirts of the city, built on a healing salt lake, is diminishing its activity. Hotels are closing, letting people unemployed, and those who could benefit of a better health, now are deprived of this spa.

Braila is the city of poverty shadows. My friend and my cousin had studied to have a career on a certain path – this was no longer possible, a few years after they graduated the vocational high-schools qualifying them in that field. Then, they went on the path of professional reconversion – but with this flimsy economy, this hasn’t helped much either. Lives get wasted, hopes get wasted, poverty reigns.

The bandits of the legends have reincarnated now in futureless youth, full of violence against the whole society, and choosing to let it out in neighbourhood gangs. Some places, including in the neighbourhood where I spent my teen years, are no longer safe, as I heard. The unemployed men are drowning their sorrows in liquor, which makes them poorer and more violent. Who could, among the younger generations, went away to work in other countries. What to do in a dying city? My cousin’s husband is working in Spain, after having tried other countries as well; my friend’s ex husband is working in Italy, while she, having four or five different qualifications, has lost her latest job, and nobody is hiring. How to raise a high-school child in these conditions? And there are people in worse situation than them…

My friend and my cousin are looking towards the capital with envious eyes, seeing that we managed better. It’s the fear of surviving day by day, it’s the despair of losing another job, it’s the long, strangling hand of poverty which makes them hate the dying city they have been born in.

– THE END –

The Wheel of Fortune

– Sancho Panza’s inheritance story

Sancho Panza, the illiterate farmer who had become don Quijote’s squire in his adventures, had been married for a long time to a woman named Teresa Cascajo and had a daughter, Marísancha, aged seventeen. All the other children had died at birth or short time afterwards, and she was his only heir… – well, if she had what to inherit or if daughters counted. And none of these conditions were valid. But upon Don Quijote’s death, when his will got read, they discovered that the old knight errant had actually left a piece of land from his property to Marisancha Panza y Cascajo, to be her dowry,… on condition that she married a hidalgo. This was a difficult condition to meet….

All the remaining land and the manor had been left to Don Quijote’s niece, Antonia Quijano, who was nineteen at that time, with the unwritten hope that with such a dowry she’d find a husband. However, some other provisions were made for the future, on condition that said Marisancha and her unknown yet husband had sons, if they sent their sons to school.

This was not exactly a fortune, but for Sancho Panza was a Godsent gift. The wheel of fortune had finally stopped his way, after he had followed and protected his lord in mad quests. His daughter didn’t have much dowry anyway, since he was a poor farmer, a tenant not owning even the land he was working. The land she was owning now was larger than the one Sancho’s family was working, and it meant that she would have something to bring to a new family. He was the last in his line to be a commoner, illiterate and poor farmer.

Actually, it was an advantage in being a hidalgo. They were gentry, revered as such, holding on to the privileges and honours of the nobility even if they had no fortune to back the title up, and exempt from paying taxes. While a commoner couldn’t access to military and administrative careers, they could, and even the poorest of them refused manual work as contrary to their honour. This meant a pretty wife with a dowry might attract some….

So, Sancho started to seek for a young hidalgo to marry her. He had no illusions that a hidalgo de sangre, with an untainted lineage for several centuries, would get interested in her, no matter that she was young, pretty, healthy, hardworking and with some dowry. But he knew that there were other two types of hidalgos who might: either a Biscayan man who was interested in owning land, after his ancestors had lost it, or a young man who had at least six legitimate brothers – the so called sons of hidalgos de bragueta (“fly-of-the-trousers hidalgo“), who, by default, were the poorest gentry.

Jose Maria Zamorra was, indeed, the youngest son of such a hidalgo de bragueta, born under the Andalucian sun. He had to seek the carreer of army since young, but he couldn’t get the deserved promotions for being too poor, as he couldn’t afford the required expenses for a commission and for the related equipment. But he was a hidalgo and a lancer sergeant deployed in the area….

It wasn’t easy to arrange the marriage, for several reasons. First of all, Antonia Quijano had all the interest in the world that it didn’t happen, and she tried to start rumours about Marisancha being a lazy slut. Secondly, it took a while for don Jose Maria Zamorra, who was twenty five at that time, to get persuaded that he wanted to get married.

But, with Sancho Panza’s determination and with the girl’s good looks, things were arranged. The young sergeant convinced himself that the rumours hadn’t been true. The girl might have been rather naive and easy to charm, but weren’t most of them? However, she was no slut, and he got the proof that she had been a maiden. Well, the proof was obvious enough for her father and the priest too, so a shotgun wedding happened in haste.

Actually, Don Jose Maria Zamorra mused, the deal he had got into wasn’t too bad. Marisancha had been only his, she had some dowry, and she wouldn’t ask him to leave the Army for her. She would be the one to stay at home and run the farm, while he was fighting for the glory of the crown of Castilla. He smiled and accepted the bride with whom he had just consummated the wedding night in what peasants called “putting the cart before the oxes“. Well, not the first, nor the last man to start his married life before the priest’s blessing… He wouldn’t mind a son (or more, if he was anything like his father) looking like both of them, he thought vainly.

…After a little more than one year, that son came, and he was christened Jose Santiago. Then, a daughter, called Maria Teresa. The next son of the family was named Alonso, after Don Quijote, and the other Juan Antonio. There might have been some more who lived, who knows… The grandparents were happy to help with raising them, and to offer their help in the estate management while the head of the Zamorra family was away.

Upon late Don Quijote’s will, the boys were sent to school, and all of them showed interest in knights’ stories. Maria Teresa and her mother, Marisancha, learnt to write and to calculate at the same time with the boys, and it helped in the management of the land.

Marisancha was a healthy and industrious woman, and her husband didn’t spent recklessly his pay, neither his wife’s dowry. The war prizes he brought home after campaigns were invested in the land, instead of thinking about paying his dues for a promotion. He knew that after the wars, when his army carreer would end, it was there he was bound to retire.

First, the investment was not in extending, but in cultivating the land properly and hiring work hands. Upon old Sancho Panza’s advice, Marisancha chose to plant first a vineyard, since it was a good wine area, then cereals. Sheep and goats were added to the inventory afterwards, as being good for creating more wealth. The wheel of fortune seemed to remain on their side as long as old Sancho Panza and his son-in-law, Jose Maria Zamorra, lived.

Jose Santiago was more like his father than like his mother. He favoured the career in the Army, and when he enlisted, as he had studied with the monks before, he got the rank of alferez, flag bearer. His life was linked to the Army’s itineration, and he never returned to La Mancha, finding his fortune elsewhere.

Alonso was the one in love with the land – not that Juanto wouldn’t. The land got split between them two, as their older brother had given up his claims in their favour, and they did, at their turn, what their father had done: they married girls who had a better dowry than their pedigree. As for their sister, Maria Teresa, she got married to a miller, in order to keep the processing of the crops in the family, as her being a hidalgo‘s daughter counted less than her dowry.

Life isn’t, though, only sunshine and rainbows. There had been drought, there had been storms affecting crops in other years, and there had been wars, when enemies or even allied armies set camp in La Mancha, depleting resources. The family wealth couldn’t last forever, and the wheel of fortune, ultimately, turned to other lucky sods.

But if you, Spanish citizen or one from the former Colonies, can calculate your ancestry back to many generations ago, you might find out with surprise that Sancho Panza and his daughter Marisancha had been at the root of your genealogy tree, and you are the offspring of a hidalgo of long time ago.

– THE END –

THE FIRES OF LOVE AND INTRIGUE

Maribel had told Carmen the story of her family in exchange of Carmen’’s story, and how her brother Chema got to be sold to a smuggler who brought him somewhere to the Spanish Main. Maribel had promised her to read her the cards for the King of clubs Jose Maria, in her room, in deep secret.

”Why are you keeping it secret?” Carmen asked, naively.

”Because some people are afraid of what they don’t understand. Exactly how it was with your accusation, in the first day, that I poisoned you, when in truth you simply weren’t accustomed to the taste of the spiced coffee with cardamom. But what if people believed you and thought that I use poisons? They know I am into healing plants, so it would be only a next step, leading to an official prosecution. And having an ancestor who had been burnt at stake for witchcraft, I have to be careful with it.”

”Was she really a witch?” the younger woman was fascinated.

”No, she was not. She was no different than me, having the Gypsy gift of fortune reading, and the knowledge of healing plants. But it took loving the wrong man and getting the wrong enemies therefore, to be denounced as a witch and judged accordingly.”

Carmen looked at her fascinated.

”Tell me her story, please, if you know it. I don’t know about any relatives except my mother, who had been separated from her parents at an early age.”

Why not? A story more, to a girl who liked stories… nothing wrong with it. And the innkeeper understood what exactly could mean, for a slave, “separated from her parents at an early age.” She had seen other children sold without their parents… So, Maribel started:

”At twenty, Jacinta was a young widow. Her husband had died of lung fever almost one year ago, leaving her to care for three children. Barnabe was four years old, Jacinto was two and Marisol was still a baby. 

The coins caught in her hair were sounding from time to time, equally like the bracelets at her wrists, and the flower in her hair was telling her name.

With the baby caught in a shawl around her hip and the two little boys holding on her many petticoats, she was reading the curious’s fortune at the fair when Don Pedro Nunez de Villavicencio, a young noble man, happened to pass by. Everybody in Sevilla knew him, as his father was an Admiral and he was supposed to follow in the old man’s steps. Only that the young man showed more inclination for painting than for military studies. Actually that was why he was now at the fair, looking for sights worth painting from memory and for interesting faces who would benefit of a few coins to pose for the painter for more detailed scenes. His friend was the known, older Murillo, who was in the process of setting in Sevilla an Academy of Arts.

But Jacinta didn’t know him. Well, she might have heard about his name somewhere, or not even. She was not too often in the town, except fairs and festivals where her skills could get handy in making more money for her family.

She read his palm, and she found there a long successful life, with the line of art very pronounced, with no marriage and with a heartbreak. He smiled at the prediction of no marriage, since his father was trying to convince him to get married to a young lady of his choice, and the painter was not interested. He looked at her better, and not only her beauty, but some unusual facial traits inspired him, and he asked her in many ways until he convinced her to let herself drawn some next day.

While he was completing a painting with her as the model, love was growing in both hearts. He didn’t care that she was a widow with children, he didn’t care that her origins were humble. He loved her and he wanted her by his side; she loved him and she ultimately accepted to be his mistress.

Don Pedro bought her a house in a middle-class neighbourhood – or, actually, the house was his, he used it as a painting studio, but she was the one who was actually living there with her children and with a twelve years old niece who helped her take care of the children and of the household. He was coming almost every day to visit her and to paint. Sometimes his friends, the painters, came too, in order to see a picture or another, and she was the good, silent servant who brought them refreshments. She was happy with her life, with his love, with him asking her and the boys sometimes to be his models for new paintings. But how long could this happiness last?

Her family – or rather the in-laws she was living with, according to their people’s traditions – was not too pleased with what was going on. However, this was an opportunity she couldn’t deny; it meant the children were raised in a moderate wealth and that she could help her family from her new position, so they were ready to close their eyes and to pretend it wasn’t happening. Unlike in other cases, she had no trouble from them, as her father-in-law understood that some day the nobleman would marry or find a younger mistress, and she was to return to them, as there was no other place she could go. If she was smart, she could raise some dowry in order to marry again afterwards, he mused.

The Admiral de Villavicencio couldn’t accept what was going on. Having a mistress… well, it was something normal for a young man, but being so attached of her that he didn’t want to marry as his father wanted him to, with a respectable noble lady with a good dowry, and whose father would have meant a good alliance for the Admiral’s interests? This was inconceivable! Besides, he was sure that the Gypsy woman had charmed him to keep him with her – how else could the old man explain his son’s attraction to a widow with three children, when he could have a younger, prettier woman, or as many as he wanted? If his son didn’t want to pursue the military carreer he was destined to, preferring to paint and to gallivant with a Gypsy woman, something had to be done about this. If he could get the woman out of his son’s life, then he would obey his father – or at least this was the Admiral’s opinion. And thinking how to do it for good, he got soon the best idea: he paid a few men and women with a good reputation in society to denounce Jacinta to the Inquisition as a witch. They declared she had read them their fortune, some of them declared also that she had stated that the Devil himself was her lover. And the Inquisition wasn’t sleeping when a witch was denounced…

The niece happened not to be at home when the guards sent by the Inquisition took Jacinta, so only the widow and her baby were taken. When she arrived to an empty home and found out what had happened, she returned with the two boys to her family.

Jacinta was tortured under the accusation of witchcraft, to which blasphemy was added too, when she had said that she loved don Pedro and their love had no sin. The Church happened to think otherwise. Fornication was a sin, so her stance was a blasphemy against the Ten Commandments. Then, they started to look for evidence that she was a witch – and when the Inquisition looked for evidence, they were bound to find it, by misinterpreting everything.

She had a pigmented birthmark in the shape of a cherry, which was regarded as a mark of the Devil; she had cards and bones to read fortune; she had a cat she cherished, and cats, no matter that it wasn’t black, were cherished by the Devil; she had been denounced by blemishless members of the society and by another witch during the interrogation… What was easier than making a tortured woman to tell exactly what the torturers wanted to hear, when the clerk was there to note the confession? Besides, the suffering under torture she had endured was offering more “evidence” of demonic possession, in the Inquisition’s opinion, such as blasphemies uttered to the torturers, uncontrollable spasms, and, for a woman whose mother tongue was not Spanish, “speaking in tongues”, which meant saying, in delirious pain, words the torturers couldn’t understand.

Exactly how the other witch had been tortured to denounce her, Jacinta also, under tortures, admitted all the accusations, including having slept with a demon who took the shape of Don Pedro Nunez de Villavicencio, whom everybody knew to be a pillar of the society… Good finding, nothing to say!

All these were grounds to declare her a witch, and being Gypsy meant from the start that she would be condemned. And yes, she got condemned for witchcraft and blasphemy, to be burnt at stake. The confession of her sins and the alleged repenting had to take the form of a ritual of public penance for condemned heretics; this is why it got to me something of what had been said.

Her baby, little Marisol, had been taken from her and given to nuns to properly raise her, which was something common for the suspect women before being subjected to torture. Nobody could learn afterwards what happened with her. If she survived childhood, she might have become a nun at her turn, taught to pray for the soul of her heretic mother.

But the two boys remained with the family. Among the great number of children who were there, belonging to several sisters-in-law, nobody except the family could say who were Jacinta’s. And the authorities didn’t care about two Gypsy boys, anyway. The witch was away from the path of the admiral’s family.

One would think that don Pedro Nunez de Villavicencio, the noble painter, got himself exempted of the scandal with the demon confession trick, but he didn’t. The town was still gossiping and wondering what had really happened. The Inquisition trial didn’t fool most people; they knew the Gypsy beauty had to be removed in order for the man to follow his path in the society. Nevertheless, he couldn’t remain in Sevilla either. Not only the people’s gossips, but the shadows of his love and his cowardice hanged heavily on his conscience. In that very year, 1661, he joined the order of the Knights of Saint John, an military order of monks fighters, pronouncing his vows of chastity and poverty, together with repenting for all the previous sins.

He left for Malta in the service of the order, spending many years abroad. He had become a known painter, as far as I heard, and he returned, in his old age, to die in Sevilla. Several of his paintings had been given to the king and his court. I wonder if those where Jacinta had served as model too, and I wonder sometimes how it was for him to have his lover executed in front of his eyes and he not able to show any grief. How much he had seen her in his dreams afterwards, and if he had painted her from memory afterwards too.”

”I would have been curious about this too,” Carmen admitted. ”If he confronted his father and he didn’t want to get married or to give her up, then it meant he truly loved her. And the fact that he wanted no other woman afterwards, is also a sign in the same direction. It is a sad love story which has impressed me a lot, one worth a song,” she expressed her admiration as well as she was able to.

Carmen figured out that when the painter had returned, older and wiser, he didn’t want to stir up the scandal back. Besides, he might have loved the woman, but since they hadn’t got children of their own, he wasn’t curious to learn about two boys he had no connection with.

Maribel guessed her thought and continued the story in her own way:

”…Nevertheless, at that time my family was not there anymore, they had left for Granada. Little Barnabe Heredia had grown into a strong man, and his uncles had taught him both how to raise and train horses and how to fight. In Granada, Gypsies were good at this. At eighteen, he got married to a young girl he had been promised to for a while, Mariquita, and they got ten children. There were several boys among them, but the oldest girl was Maria Salome, my mother. All the women of the family, who were taught to read cards and palms, were also taught to be careful where they do it and not to flaunt it in public, unless they want to end like poor Jacinta,” Maribel ended her story with a sigh.

Carmen had understood her reasons already, and something more as well:

“Maybe this is why your grandfather had understood and he had welcomed your father when his family disowned him. He didn’t want to lose his daughter and he had thought they were safer this way, under the eyes of the whole family,” the younger woman concluded.

This was a good point she had never considered.

”Now, it’s time to come back to the cards, and to your brother…”, Maribel said, taking them from the table and shuffling them, while saying the traditional invocation words.

– THE END –