A fort and a story

“Pretty view”, he remarked.

“Yeah, it’s great isn’t it? It stirs all patriotic ravings you could hear about picturesque Romania or the gently flowing Ozana, as clear as crystal.”

“The what?”

“It’s the river. It’s called Ozana, and what I said was a famous quotation from a classical writer; without it we wouldn’t even know the river’s name. Of course, in his times, it might have really been clear as crystal, but now you wouldn’t quite say that, would you?” and she laughed cheerfully.

“No, I probably wouldn’t”, said Peter, “but it has to be a lovely thing if it’s so famous – I mean, the quotation – it must have some other value, and so does the river here, too. Since everyone knows it.”

“Yeah, I guess so. Bed-time stories and school curriculum”, Mona concluded. “Of course it’s compulsory reading in secondary school.”

They slowly turned around and walked away, climbing down the steep, bulky stairs, looking around casually in a kind of revision of what they had seen in the castle. They became aware that a drone was filling the yard now, a human voice it was, but it seemed to be everywhere, as the sounds bounded indistinguishable against the walls. At first it had felt as if the place had started to generate a hum or a rumour coming out of its stone cavities at the blow of the wind. The next thing Peter thought of was that there must be a priest holding some kind of service in the derelict church placed in one of the sides of the castle. But as their eyes went down to the yard, they noticed that a large group was standing in the middle of the yard, by the well, listening to the man they had met at the entrance, and who was pouring forth a speech in a humming sound. He seemed to be acting as guide now, and Peter was struck by the change in his appearance. Not that his clothes were looking less dull or unassuming, but his eyes had put on a spark that came from the excitement that the speech clearly supplied. He looked bright, lively, quick.

He was standing a little higher than the crowd, up on a stone kerb, and talked incessantly. Occasionally he pointed to some part of the castle or drew a curve in the air to show the arches, but apart from that, he hardly used his hands and kept them still, in a casual manner. His whole appearance seemed to say ‘Here I am, if you’ll listen, I’ve got an exciting story to tell, but if not, I won’t mind.’

“Is that our Andrew?” Peter addressed Mona in a low voice, as if the man might have heard them and it would have looked like a rude remark.

“You mean the guide?” asked Mona in surprise. She turned to where the guide was standing, blinked several times as if she was only then noticing him and then mumbled slightly intrigued,

“Could be”.

They drew closer and as they did so, the voice seemed to acquire more definite shape, in that they could distinguish interrogative tones, possible notes of irony or jest, all flowing in an alert succession that tended to blur the variations to the more distant listener.

“Do you understand what he’s saying?”

“Very hard. He’s speaking so bloody fast – the saying went that Moldavians have a soft gentle speech, nothing like that! He’s a guide anyway, that’s clear, I mean I know roughly what he’s talking about. If that’s really our Andrew, we’ll ask him for a summary afterwards”, she concluded and started forth, heading for the exit.

“Wait”, he grabbed her arm, “let’s get closer and try to catch what he’s explaining. Please”, he added, using his firm-request tone for the first time to Mona.

“You’ll have to pay me extra, Mr. Schild”, she retorted mimicking anger, but followed him. They managed to get round several people in the crowd, whose eyes were glued to the guide and whose faces were set, or turned, automatically in the same direction when the man pointed to some segment of the walls. When they had been standing still for a few moments, Mona began to reel off her translation under her breath, pausing now and then at a loss, but rushing, sighing, stamping her feet when frustrated – gripped by the game.

Simona Petrescu - To the Moon and Back

“The fortress is 600 years old – this country itself, Moldavia, a mere three decades older, Moldavia being founded in 1359 as a state and the fort sometime around 1385 under Peter the First – so it’s as old as the country itself, and in its whole past it’s never opened its gates without a fight. Raised mainly for defence, it reached its peak glory a hundred years later under Stephen the Great, who built the outer yard – that’s the lawn you can see just outside this Northern wall – leaning on four bastions, additional outer walls, a new moat, the arched bridge you’ve walked on up to the gate, as well as the inner buildings – the private rooms, the chapel, storehouses for food and ammunition, workshops for craftsmen and others. The walls were consolidated to withstand the siege artillery. The Turks beset it in 1476 with an army of two hundred thousand men, but they had been trudging over a country of burnt crops, poisoned wells and deserted farms, so when they got here they were pretty feeble – you saw the bridge to the gate, it’s no more than five feet wide so you can imagine two hundred thousand men squeezing and barging along it as they were carrying a ram too – not the animal, but the weapon to break the gate – and mind you, there were no banisters on the bridge back then, while underneath there were spears stuck into the ground, so when they dashed headlong, down fell many Turks right into the spears and those who still stood on the bridge ran wild up to the gate and just yards before it the pit swallowed many others. They had to withdraw, after eight days – the canons were helpless and so the biggest and proudest army had to go back tail between the legs to pray to their Allah for mercy. And Stephen took the Turks out of the pit and had them dig the well over here, which went down all the way to the riverbed, and hard did the heathens sweat digging it for us. The well naturally became the heart of the fortress, and it was an irony of history that the Turks themselves should have sweated for it. But the next year Mohammed the Second came back and caught Stephen out there in the plains at Razboieni, and Stephen lost his army and got injured himself, so he rode on his horse up here to get rest and attendance. But once he came up to the gate at midnight and asked to be let in, his mother was standing in that tower where the rooms were, ‘on a black cliff, in an ancient castle’ – the children here will know the poem – who wrote it? – “

A short pause followed, as the audience was taken by surprise by the sudden halt and the unexpected demand for contribution, then a father in the crowd answered like a proud schoolboy in his kid’s place,

“Bolintineanu, Mother of Stephen the Great”.

“Right”, flashed the guide, “and what comes next?”

Then a chubby kid braced up and spoke out

Pray open the gate, the Turks are closing in on me, the wind is sharply blowing, my wounds are stabbing me.”

“Well done, lad”, the guide smiled, “and did she have the gate open for her son the king?”

“No”, shouted another kid. “She said Go to your army, die for your country and with wreaths a thousand will your grave be crowned.

“That’s right”, the guide nodded, surveying the faces in the crowd with piercing eyes, as if to determine the effect of the words that the old queen mother had pronounced.

“And then he rode on, to an old wise monk in a secluded cloister out in the woods and asked for his counsel; the monk told him about a wood-keeper who had three brave sons and they called up another army for Stephen. Together they went back and crashed on the Turk’s army and put them on the run.

‘In the next hundred years the fort turned more into an administrative rather than military site, as the Turks were on our back, getting stronger all the time and of course they would have liked to see all fortresses pulled down, which they actually ordered in the sixteenth century. Besides, those were insecure times of short-lived reigns, of plots, treason, overthrows, of brittle authority broken up between the king and the rich land-owners, so it was easy for the Turks to have us under their thumbs.

‘There is one more landmark in the fort’s history, and that is in early seventeenth century, around 1620, when a Polish army besieged it for several days. Within these walls there were nineteen men. The siege ended by means of a trick: the Poles contrived a letter from the Moldavian king demanding the soldiers’ surrender, with a seal forged by a former Moldavian notary who’d joined the Poles in his wandering many years before; believing it genuine, the soldiers in the fort submitted and when the gate opened and the Polish commander saw coming out not an army, but six men carrying three injured fellows on their backs, he got so angry that he ordered that they should be hanged. He was, though, persuaded by a counsellor to spare their lives on account of their bravery. And then the Poles marched in and were eager to see what those Moldavians had been living on, so they tasted from the large pot of mamaliga with garlic, and how they fell to right away!”

There followed a hearty guffaw and a general rumour of amusement. The guide was smiling too, rather in the corner of his mouth, in a sort of irony to the ignorance of the Polish soldiers, but also with satisfaction at the effect of his story.

“In the centuries of Turkish hegemony, the fort was first left to decay at the order of the sultan, but later restored to its function of administrative centre, under various pretexts. To deny its walls and power, a Moldavian king went as far as to set up a small monastery here around 1640 and to claim this site to be not a fortress, but a monastic settlement.

Finally – I will stop here – it’s significant that all military importance foregone, the fort remained the place where the country’s money, treasures, secret documents or kingly family members took shelter or were stored in times of trial.

There is no other fortress so meaningful to us Romanians. You’re looking at it now and you’re also looking at yourselves – at ourselves – something like this” – here he pointed to the entire site – “is what defines us. You’re looking at battles with Turks, Cossacks, Poles, at Stephen’s bastion, at a long row of rulers, one humble to the foreign power, one defensive and another one artful; you see warfare and deception, our chief defence as a small country, and of course you see the gently flowing Ozana, clear as crystal, in which the Fortress has been mirrored for centuries. And if you are here, you must go and see Nick – d’you know him, kids? – No? He lives one or two miles away – he’s a naughty boy he is, not very fond of O’Thunder’s dogs, they once turned on him and almost tore his breeches as he was creeping through O’Thunder’s garden, so watch out when you pass by. He’d been out bathing in the Ozana on a hot day, though his mum had asked him to stay home and help her, poor soul, with the house work – yeah, go and find him, kids, he’ll tell you some story.”

The guide had started heading slowly for the gate, as if seeing the guests off. His voice had put on a gentle tone and some affection had crept in. The tourists turned after him rather puzzled that it was all over and glanced around in hurried confusion.

With the voice silenced, the fort was wrapped in heavy, woolly quiet. The tourists’ quick, short-breathed whispers and the scratch of pebbles under their feet came over as a background of temporary noise. The sun had gone askance and was projecting long shadows in the small yard. The well alone was still entirely lit by sunshine, while the walls opposite to it, towards the gate, had taken up a dark grey hue. The tall former hall of weapons, instead, with its three-storied structure, was directly hit by the beams and its slabs had gone white with the clear-cut edges gleaming in the light. The tin plates reading ‘The Dark Gaol’, ‘Bedrooms’, ‘Reception Hall’, ‘Kitchen’, hanging higher on the walls, caught the sun and glinted back in quiet composure. Mona too had changed. She had put on a vague smile in the corner of her mouth and looked around tentatively, as if afraid not to be caught staring rudely.

Peter wondered if it was the sun going down, or any other effect of the dusk, that made the fortress suddenly look taller, more solid, and more distinct. The mingled in-houses from different ages, the cluster of testimonies of different sources, already taken in, built now into a multi-sided full-bodied whole. He realised that they should be moving on if they wanted to meet the guide to see if he was the man they were looking for. He turned to Mona, but found her several yards away, climbing the narrow stairs to the north-western tower where the private rooms had once been. The crowd had dissembled in the same bewildered quiet, so he started slowly towards the gate, with an odd feeling of being watched and a queer awareness of every motion, as if the air had turned suddenly into a denser element, enclosing every object in thick matter.

He went through the vaulted entrance hall where horses must have had to trot in one at a time and he heard the guide’s voice again. Outside the walls, it lost the tension of the echo, as the tones dispersed themselves in the open without bounding back. Peter stepped through the front gate and found himself strangely exposed; the tree tops and the sky directly above made up a queerly wide, unobstructed view, while the setting sun beams pierced his eyes in a frontal assault. He stopped short and put his hand up to shade his eyes and then he noticed that the guide, while speaking on, had turned around and glanced at him with a faint smile. Peter gazed at him too, blinking but still holding his hand up and then the man turned again to his interlocutors and seemed to put an end to his speech. He pointed to a metal plate hanging on the wall, by the gate, where possibly historical information was recorded, and as soon as he’d done that his speech did come to an end, while the visitors gave a short burst of laughter apparently at the guide’s last joke, and started forth towards the gate. The guide then turned back to Peter, faced him and stepped towards him with the same faint smile. He asked him something with a precipitated roll of words that Peter was unable to distinguish, and confused at this sudden approach, he looked back for Mona. Not in sight. The man had slightly raised his eyebrows, and Peter found himself saying

“No, er – I’m sorry, I – “

The man then opened his mouth in a large smile and said as if pressed for time:

“Yes, I speak English, can I help you?”

Peter stood watching him with a blank stare, then sighed relieved,

“God, it all happens so quickly – I’m sorry, for a moment I felt lost when you talked to me.” Then he recovered and switched back to his natural manner: “O, hi, I’m Peter Schild, I’m a journalist and we’re here looking for someone called Andrew, we were told he’s a guide at this castle – is that by any chance – ?”

“Yes, that’s me, hello and welcome. I was expecting you. Are you for the first time here?”

“In Romania? – No. It’s already my third time – “

“Third? Three is a lucky number, you know. And round.”

“Yeah’, Peter laughed, “How round do you mean?”

“I mean, a round figure or number is when you don’t want to get lost in details, you say let’s make it a round figure. It’s like drawing a solid line. So in your case you’ll either stop ever coming to Romania after this third visit, or it’s sure to give you a new perspective.”

Peter said nothing but wondered at the guide’s remarkable fluency, then spoke again:

“No, I don’t think I’ll stop ever coming back to Romania, so it must be the other way. But I am for the first time here in Moldavia.”

“Are you sure?”

“Why – what do you mean?”

“O, I don’t know – I thought – well, never mind, I was just kidding.”

Peter blinked at him for a moment and only added a faint smile to his wondering aloud:

“A joke all right, but I wonder why – “

“Well, actually I meant – I’ve heard many people say coming here almost means something like coming home – but that’ll sound even more far-fetched to you, of course.” The guide smiled affectionately but Peter wondered if there was any mild irony attached. “So – tell me what you’d like to see here.”

“Well, Andrew – my assistant in Bucharest – told me you’d know what to show us and that you’re just the right person to go to if one wants to see Moldavia!”

The guide puffed shortly with a brisk and half ironical lopsided smile.

“Andrew – your Andrew – has got his own way with words. I know a few things about the place all right, but everyone sees what there already is in their minds, so I can only hope you won’t leave disappointed!”