The Curse of the Mustachioed Bandit
by Irina Teodorescu
Translation Sample by Aurora Bell
These are things I do not know firsthand. I know that at a certain point there was another apartment, maybe it had large south-facing windows, maybe at that time summers were cooler and winters more mild. Maybe there was a time, or several—yes, several times, why not, when it comes down to it—of Sunday mornings in this apartment when the bed stayed unmade, bathed in sunlight. And since I can’t be sure—at least not without asking her, the one who is still alive, but that I have no desire to do—, I can imagine that they were there, together, those Sunday mornings, sipping coffee in the apartment’s tiny kitchen, chatting about everyday things, about a colleague at work, an idea for a trip, a train wreck, castles in the sky. I can imagine it clearly, and that is exactly why I will never ask her if, during that time, they were happy together.
He, of course, smoked already, smoked forever, he did, and the image of cigarette smoke floating through the sunlit curtains, is a real one.
Later, maybe when the kitchen table was covered with a tablecloth, she would be the one who would have bought it with her first paycheck, of course, because of her fears and fancies, she would have bought a floral waterproof tablecloth. Maybe, at the same table, they spent Thursday evenings together, he laughing and she smiling. Or maybe Saturday evenings during which a cake and a bottle waited wisely for late friends to share them. But again, these are only suppositions.
Of course, you can go far that way, imagining better days that could have existed in a hypothetical past, and why not, after all?
There, suddenly, while I watch her, seated in front of me, wrinkled and gray and joyless, another image comes to me—it’s strange, isn’t it—of the same apartment. I see a sofa, different than the one I’ve always known, a simple sofa, more or less ugly, and a low table in front of it, with the ashtray, and I see them on the sofa making love, I see his ass, bare, and her knees, apart, she trembles gently, come on, doll, he said to her—after all they must have done it—, I see the low table moved toward the window by rhythmic kicks.
The man wears a long moustache, so long that he often drenches it in the sauce of his favorite dish—a thin soup of white beans traditional to the peasants of this faraway land. From his appetite, it is clear the man is well: he loves the simple dish so much that he constantly wears a crust of dried beans in the hair of his long mustache. His fetid breath mixed with the steam from the spoiled sauce is not conducive to friendship, so the man is alone and acts alone. Nonetheless his task is honest: he takes from the rich to give to the poor. For the destitute peasants who he justly serves, his repulsive scent is of no importance; no one asks himself if this man neglects his appearance; no one thinks to hand him over to the police.
Gheorghe Marinescu, petit bourgeois of the neighborhood, also wears a mustache, but a much more elegant one, neatly trimmed and combed, perfectly maintained. And Gheorghe never eats hard-to-digest beans, being the son of a man who regularly hunts wild duck and who, above all, can afford a servant to prepare him varied and nutritious meals.
Our story begins at the barber’s: One morning Gheorghe Marinescu goes into the little shop hoping to have the lower part of his face spruced up. The barber ties a cloth around the young man’s neck and is preparing to apply his soap when the door opens wide and the bandit with the long mustache enters, sweating. He grabs the barber, shakes him once or twice, and asks for his sharpest blade, and quickly, for he is in a hurry. From their first meeting, he finds the man with the long mustache unimaginably repulsive, but Gheorghe—head tipped back, neck offered to the barber—is inspired by his delicate position; he adroitly hides his disgust and makes friends: Among his father’s things he has two pistols, not the best model, nor the most precise, but two pistols nonetheless, and priced below market. He says that he can bring them within the hour.
The man with the long mustache scrutinizes Gheorghe’s young face and decides to trust him; he is only a petit bourgeois who wants to grow rich; the bandit will find a way to deal with him later. And so he shakes the manicured hand that Gheorghe offers, agrees to meet at the village tavern several hours hence, and leaves with the barber’s blade.
In the meantime, the bandit, as a good righter of wrongs, cuts certain throats in the region, ones even better groomed than that of the young Marinescu, and distributes among the poor the trunks brimming with gold that he has recovered.
Well after nightfall, while Gheorghe is beginning to lose hope, the man with the mustache finally returns to the tavern, this despite the wanted signs posted here and there on the village walls. Gheorghe and his pistols respond present. In exchange for ten gold pieces, the man takes possession of the merchandise. Then, driven by a strange need, he confides his distress: The police trail him night and day, he is tired and alone in the world, he wants comforts he has never experienced, he will give anything for a night in a good bed. Gheorghe scratches his neck, rubs his temple, and then offers a solution for the following Tuesday, when his father will be away, leaving him alone in the house. Until then, the man with the long mustache will have to stand firm. In the interim, several more well-groomed throats will be sliced ragged and several comfortably plump bourgeois will wake up in the middle of the night with the barrel of one of the two Marinescu pistols in his mouth.
So the following Tuesday, our two protagonists meet again at the tavern and go together to the Marinescu home. The man with the long mustache had already distributed a large part of his new fortune among the destitute peasants, but he still has one or two trunks of full of gold and valuable jewels, which Gheorghe knows, having made his own calculations. On the back of the horse that his father had left him before leaving, he guides the man to his home, into his kitchen, then into his cellar through a trap door, assuring him that no one will know that he is hidden there and that he may rest as long as he likes. He promises to return within the hour with food. Only Gheorghe is not a man of his word. Certainly the mustachioed bandit may rest, but neither water nor victuals arrive. During the long hours that follow, he first eats the crumbs of bean stocked in his mustache, then the hairs themselves, then, for a single bowl of water, he gives away the secret location of the chests of gold. While young Marinescu goes in search of the treasure, thirst lays him low again. No one hears his cries and his prayers and, in his suffering, he licks the bowl, eats the bowl, sucks on his own sweat, drinks his tears, and swallows his urine. Three days later he finally dies, cursing Gheorghe Marinescu and all of his decedents until the year two thousand.
Now rich, Gheorghe Marinescu laughs at the way things have turned out. Several months later, when his father dies, he shaves his face, adopts a monocle, and undertakes the expansion of his house. He creates a fine manor, and then marries a wife from the middle-bourgeoisie of the region, a woman named Lila. She bares him two children, a son and a daughter. Then, as the first cursed in his line, Gheorghe Marinescu dies, hit by a stray bullet during the hunt. He is twenty-seven on the day of his demise.
They say that Lila, his wife, strong mistress of the house, believing in chance, called for a priest to say two masses: one for Gheorghe’s soul, and the other against the curse of the man with the long mustache, whom her husband, on his deathbed, had confessed to killing. But either the priest was not very good, or saying mass in a suave voice and burning incense is not enough; the treatment did not work at all: Gheorghe Marinescu’s soul was still roasting in Hell when his first child dies at the age of twenty-two in a terrible cart accident. The younger child, Maria, marries a Marinescu cousin from her grandfather’s side, it being necessary to keep the blood clean, she has always been told, at least for clear skin and fine features, if not for a sharp intellect. The Marinescu cousin is a handsome man and has enough land that the family will lose nothing, so Maria-the-Younger crosses her legs for her other suitors and opens them for her cousin. After the ceremony, she sets up house in the manor, relegating her mother Lila to a room in the attic, without forgetting to hang a portrait of her father Gheorghe, depicted as a Byzantine icon of a soldier saint, above her nuptial bed.
Three children soon come into the world, the first, oh mercy! a son wicked as the devil and beautiful as an angel. Maria-the-Younger clings to him as to the apple of her eye, and her husband, the Marinescu cousin, admires and cherishes him. But when he has grown to nineteen years of age, a terrible carriage accident takes his life. The second is a boy too, but he is ugly and dumb as ditchwater. When his older brother dies, he packs his bags, paralyzed by the fear of dying from the same curse, and leaves to raise reindeer in Siberia. The third is a girl called Maria, as loose as imaginable, loving flesh and lust above all else. Nonetheless, from the tenderest age, she takes it into her head to marry a Marinescu uncle thirty-five years her senior. With him, Maria-the-Floozy gives birth to three sons, who she leaves to the wet-nurse, occupied as she is feasting with the men of the village.
To continue our story, one day her mother calls to her and, with utmost ceremony, reveals the family secret. Panic stricken, Maria-the-Floozy makes her calculations: Her sons may have come from a man other than her husband. But her calculations are in vain, as family resemblance has left no room for doubt. What to do, she asks herself, for although she does not give her children any time or attention, she does not love them any less for it. Her mother offers a solution; after her first son’s terrible accident, she had consulted the priests of the region. Out of the ten, one prescribed a remedy, but it required a huge effort from the family. If she wished to lift the curse, Maria-the- Floozy would have to leave the family home immediately and set off on foot, without a penny, to pray at the Sacred Wall in Jerusalem and wash away her sins and those of her grandfather.
“On foot?” she exclaims. “Both ways?” she sighs. “My God, it’s too far! I’ll never find the way.”
“But no,” her mother reassures her. “You can return however you like.”
And so, for the love of her children, Maria-the- Floozy says her goodbyes and sets out alone toward the Holy Land of Israel.
For the great prayer required of her, Maria travels by foot, or at least tries to. Nonetheless, if a cart stops she climbs up and rides for a little bit of the passage. When exhaustion prevents her from putting one foot in front of the other, she sleeps where she can: on the side of the road, on a rock, in a clearing, in the back of a cart, sometimes in a bed, if the innkeeper is sufficiently seduced by the services Maria-the- Floozy proposes in exchange for a meal, then for a glass of wine, and finally for a bed.
After two years, she arrives in Jerusalem. It is crowded, very crowded, but Maria does not waste time making friends. She goes straight to the Sacred Wall, falls to her knees in joy, hope, and misery all at once, spills several tears, and there makes her prayer in a single breath:
“My God, oh dear God, I beg of you, lift from my family the curse of the mustachioed bandit that our ancestor killed in such a cowardly way by leaving him to die of thirst in the kitchen cellar! Oh dear God, be good and generous, please lift the curse that will fall upon my eldest son, and upon his eldest, and the eldest of his eldest, and all the others until the year two thousand according to the mustachioed bandit who our ancestor left to eat the crust of dried beans and the hairs of his mustache before seeing him die of hunger.”
When she regains her breath, she begins again:
“Oh God, dear God, look at me, woe is me who came here on foot, and pardon my cowardly ancestor who killed that bastard the mustachioed bandit who loved white beans, pardon him and with him all of his decedents, beginning with my eldest and his eldest and his eldest’s eldest and so on until the year two thousand.”
She regains her breath again and stays there praying for three days and three nights.
Legend has it that after three days she falls stiff from exhaustion at the foot of the great Sacred Wall of Jerusalem.
No one knows how or why, but someone there, in the great sacred City, notices Maria-the- Floozy’s body and picks her up. That is how she wakes up in the home of a monk as old as the Bible, who is ready to die at any moment. He asks Maria to care and pray for him during his few remaining days; Maria cares for him as best she can, and she cannot do much, for Maria is wanton and nothing else. When it comes to wiping bottoms, she does not even know how to do it for her own children, and she is not about to learn by cleaning an old man’s shit. Meals are simple. Morning, noon, and night she serves the poor man hardboiled eggs and wheat crêpes. The monk spends his time repeating his prayers, which bores Maria, but fortunately, during one of his lucid moments, he asks her to water the petunias that he loves more than anything. Maria uses too much water and in three days the garden is transformed: The petunias give way to cabbages, the cabbages give way to tadpoles, the tadpoles give way to toads, the toads give Maria a fright and she screams so shrilly that the monk promptly gives up the Ghost.
Probably, seeing how His servant the monk has died, God renews His anger toward the Marinescu clan and, instead of granting Maria His grace, He reestablishes the curse of the mustachioed bandit who had loved white beans so much. And as everyone knows, where God takes away His grace, the devil sticks his prick, so once the toads have dispersed, Maria-the- Floozy closes the dead man’s eyes, gathers her things, snuffs out the candle, and leaves the monk’s home through the garden. But with the petunias gone, she notices that the earth has been dug up in a corner. So Maria, who albeit lacking in morals is not in intelligence, returns to the monk’s house, relights the candle, and searches everywhere in the cell until she finds a shovel under the bed. She digs into the fresh earth of the garden, digging and digging without rest, and there she finds a bag of gold coins. At this particular moment Maria-the- Floozy should at least take care to bury the owner of this great fortune, or leave everything and return empty handed as she had arrived, or even return to pray again at the foot of the great Sacred Wall of Jerusalem. But none of these actions crosses her mind, no, all she wants is to leave. And quickly, because life is short.
Legend has it that the elegant lace and valuable jewels that the family still has came from Jerusalem. The same legend tells that this Maria hid all of the gold from the monk’s garden between her legs during the return voyage; but who could prove that?
When she returns, her eldest, Ion Marinescu, has grown tall and handsome, fine and cultured; he is fourteen years old and his beard is beginning to fill out. Maria-the- Floozy strokes the young man’s delicately groomed mustache with her finger and the soft skin of his cheek with the back of her hand. For an instant she is sorry she is his mother, but decides otherwise, and suddenly remembers the curse. Has her atonement succeeded? Has God granted her His grace? He must have done, for why else would he have placed her in the path of this monk surrounded by petunias and riches? With a wave of her hand she erases the memory of the mustachioed bandit and his beans and decides to pick up her life where she had left it with no further thoughts about her grandfather. So she reestablishes her routines in the house, with her husband, her lovers, and most importantly, of course, her children. Ion, the tall, the handsome, the fine-featured, the intelligent, the cultivated, in the flower of his youth; but Sergueï as well, the wise, the calm; and finally, inevitably, the artist, the mad, the sensitive, the youngest, Gheorghe—named for his great-grandfather. Maria-the- Floozy tells them the story of her voyage: first the cloud-scraping mountains that she summited in bare feet, then the rivers half-a-country wide that she crossed with the strength of her own arms; she tells them of the people who took her in, greeting her along her pilgrimage; and finally she describes the sea, oh the sea, the sea, yes, that infinite expanse of blue shading, but not as full of water as one might imagine, no, that’s where those who have not seen the sea have it wrong, no, nothing of the kind, only salt and fish. “A little like soup, you know how those who have never tasted soup think that it is only boiled water? Or like wine, even though, no, it’s not exactly the same, but that doesn’t matter, listen, speaking of sacred things, this is how I prayed,” she said kneeling and bending to the floor. “I prayed for days and days, I did not even count,” she revealed, “Days without moving, without falling, without giving up, filled by the divine breath… I stayed that way until an Orthodox monk appeared, glowing like an angel in his generosity, and asked me, resting a hand as light as a wing on my shoulder: ‘Come, sister, come now and sleep and nourish your poor, purified, body,’ and I accepted, of course, because I knew that God Himself had set this man upon my path and that it was certainly a sign of His blessing.” After healing her, and to prove his divine love, the monk had taken a chest of gold out of a cupboard and offered it to her. When she arrives at the story of the chest, even Sergueï, the wise and good, opens his eyes wide, twinkling with joy. So Maria-the- Floozy tells them how she cried and kissed the monk’s hands, refusing the gift, how she could not accept it, how he insisted in his deep voice and dogmatic tone, but she, no, she did not have the right, not after receiving divine grace, no, she could not weigh herself down with gold after all this, and even then the monk said she must, with a steady hand and no hesitation in his voice. “So, I decided to accept enough to pay my passage and for some presents for you, my cherished children who I have not seen in all this time but who I carried in my heart all along, so far from my home and my roots.” But she could not take without giving, so, eyes red with tears, she begged the monk to accept her service, for some time, so that she could symbolically return his gift. He insisted he could not accept, she that he must, and so on for two days, until she won the case and paid the monk for his gold by serving him. “He did not ask much of me, only easy and noble tasks, like watering the petunias, he understood, of course, that I, Maria, was from a good family, blue blood shows, you see my dears, my children, never forget, for blue blood takes care to preserve, my adored sons,” and as she intones this litany, Gheorghe, the great-grandson of his ancestor cannot not suppress a smile from the height of his eleven years, as though he already sees the irony in his destiny like a stone in the road.
When her husband dies, two years after her return from the Holy Land, Maria-the- Floozy distributes the family gold fairly, a lot for the youngest, a little more for the middle child, and even more for the eldest. For herself, she keeps enough to build a house, which she erects on the village’s hill planted with linden trees; and of course enough to carry on a comfortable life; and finally enough to offer a suitable dowry, should the desire arise within her to take another man to her bosom.
And so the eldest, Ion Marinescu, will find a wife suitable to his rank in another region and install himself with her in the manor, while Maria-the-Floozy retires to her new home on the hill planted with linden trees. Sergueï goes with her, and later marries Agripina, the younger daughter of an important area storekeeper. As for the youngest, Gheorghe Marinescu…
Oh the youngest! The great-grandson of Gheorghe Marinescu I was called Guigui in the village… But he would prefer that the band of uncultivated peasants understand that he is not like them, that he is different, that his soul is loftier and his intellect is attuned to higher planes. Guigui would like to be addressed by the diminutive “Jor,” “Jor” like “George” he tells himself, but does not dare reveal this desire, especially not in front of his mother, local floozy, as Guigui is now old enough to understand. Naturally he is even more reluctant in front of his brothers, who are, in his opinion, selfish and arrogant—only natural that the apples should fall close to the tree. With time, this distressing lack of poetry drives Guigui to muster up his courage and announce his dream: He would like to continue his studies in Paris. His mother shrugs, he can do as he likes, he is grown after all, an adult, but that is how she has always seen the world, and she knows that what he finds elsewhere will be no better or worse—lips, asses, and breasts are the same everywhere! But after all, he has his inheritance, to use as he pleases. Just one thing: that he not importune her or his brothers under the pretext that life in Paris is expensive, eh? That he at least keep his land, and then it is true that it is good for the family’s standing all the same, as bluebloods, for someone to study abroad from time to time, in short, all right, but what would he study? It is Guigui’s turn to shrug. But while Maria-the-Floozy is loose she is not dumb, she knows that he is going to flirt with Art, and yet Guigui responds Economics to his eldest brother Ion’s insistent questions, and he lies with good reason, for who would understand Art in this village? So they finish by allowing him to leave, to go, dear Guigui, little fool, go study with the blessing of the Marinescu family, go on but try to bring back happiness if you find it.
From his wild, lost years away, Guigui receives a single benefit: When he returns his family calls him Jorge and several of the brighter peasants do the same, for a time, especially seeing him wandering in his custom-made suits, extra–well kept and perfectly tailored, finished with a red flower in his boutonniere. But that does not last more than a few months and old habits return quickly, leaving only regret and melancholia. Little Guigui should never have returned, the lights that he saw in Paris are like a thousand suns compared to the village’s weak lanterns, music ceases to exist, the women stayed behind, and his friends… Above all his friends, for with whom here can one hold a conversation about color photographs for example, tell me who at least knows what he returned from, not to mention mastering the subject, tell me please, so I can kiss him on both cheeks and take him by the shoulders, so we can go to the tavern to drink in wise words and the best wine, even if the wine here tastes like Parisian vinegar. And so Guigui Marinescu, great-grandson of a cursed thief and assassin, pines for a life he will never know again, as the birdbrained youth has squandered all of his gold on several years in Paris. Here he is, seated at the tavern, drowning drunken in his dream, here he is staggering toward the linden trees on the hill, dressed up for nothing, crumpled and faded with grief. Oh, but what luck, for Rosa, ‘Madame Floozy’s’ little servant is here as well, yes, yes, it is she, this slip of a woman, who takes him by the arm and leads him to the house and to her bed and to the altar. Yes, yes, it is she, little Rosa, who says ‘I do’ before God and heaven, yes, she agrees to marry Gheorghe Marinescu for better or worse, and yes, she will take care of his lands, which he has completely lost sight of, and yes, she will give him beautiful children with diluted blood, even if they will not carry her name, the whole family being against her.
But Guigui cannot come to terms with having left Paris for this gloomy life, and death refuses to take hold of him: Miserable, he goes to war and miserable he returns twice, and the second time he comes back to find his lands confiscated by the village communists, for that is how fate makes a mockery of those who fail, by granting them long, dull lives.
And that is how, years later, his great-grandson will have this memorable experience: At the age of nine, while coming home from school, he will find his great-grandfather Gheorghe Marinescu, called Guigui, lying in the ditch on the side of the road, his face pressed into the mud, dead of drink and sadness.