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by Philip Raines
"If you want to be my man and always have me by your side!" Bela recites while playing soccer with the slum orfani, "Well, don't speak to me of fado. Tell me about love!"
Bela has been saying this over and over for the last hour of our hunt, mixing up the words hopelessly. I cannot explain how strange it is to hear him speak the lines of that tender song as we pause and look down on the city. Ever since my father first played Fado's Sentence to me, I have lived with the frail Elena Csonga version of the song, and now here is huge Bela, trampling through the words like a child loose in a garden. He misquotes them so brightly and innocently that it is almost impossible to remember how they dripped with the weariness and delicate heartsick of the ageing Csonga's voice. But it is churlish of me to complain. After all, it was at my urging that Bela is now learning how to read by studying the lyric sheets of my old cassette boxes.
This is also Bela's simple way of expressing the joy of the chase. For most of the evening, the two of us have pursued our prey, following it from the sugar port where I first caught its trail, through the Downtown where it skulked behind the tourist casinos, feeding on dinner-dance scraps, scampering through the Piata Presei Libere tunnel under the bay, across the ring boulevard, and finally dodging up the southern slopes. Since then we have been picking our way among the saracacios shanties, listening through the curdle of arguments, moans and radio pop for the distinctive trace of the quarry, certain that it must be somewhere near. I have tried asking families lying outside their one-room shacks in deference to the humid night, but none admit to seeing the dog.
"The domnule is looking for the caine?" A fat woman, her crippled leg supported by a truck tyre, replies with a shrug. "Who is not looking for the caine?"
"God favour your leg," I dismiss her and go back to Bela, who is showing the group of boys pictures of the national team in his copy of Gazeta Sporturilor.
"Did you find the dog?" Bela asks, excited, but when I shake my head, he is so disappointed I have to pat his shoulder. "But you always find the dog, Emil."
"Domnule, have you lost your dog?" one of the small boys asks. "I will find it for you!"
"And how would you know which is my dog, little sire?"
The boy whistles part of the dog's song, demonstrating an uncanny hearing that must surely lead to a future as a rag-ear. "In exchange, domnule," he says to me and points at the sports paper.
"That would be fine, sire, were it my paper to offer. But it is not. It is my friend's."
"My friend's?" Bela always looks surprised when someone shows respect for his things. "Oh, Emil, he can have the pictures, but I want to keep the words. Can I keep the words? I know the names of the whole team now! Is that alright, Emil?"
"That is very fine of you, Bela." He ducks his head in that endearing way of his whenever he is embarrassed by kindness.
The gypsy boy has no need for the words so agrees, but will not shake hands with Bela for fear of catching AIDS from strangers. As Bela carefully tears out the photos, the boy tells me how the dog ran across the lower circles of the saracacios and into the trees backing onto a distant building site not ten minutes ago.
Bela and I set off, zigzagging between the shacks as we slip down the slope into an empty pitch where bulldozers have cleared away the squatters for the new housing. Ahead of us, the shanties peter out under the shadows of unoccupied twelve-story apartment buildings with broken windows and soon we are back in the city. As we cross the subdued Piata Victorei, watched by militia in an armoured vehicle waiting for the curfew, I begin to worry that we may have to get off the streets and come back tomorrow night. By then, the dog may have been run down by the rag-ear gangs or one of the other rival hunters, freelance like myself. We know the rag-ears are about this evening, for at one point, Bela finds the remains of a mutilated police horse, its body lying with shopping carts in the stagnant canal water, the head skinned of its fado. However, we must be lucky tonight, for near the presidential museum, I hear the dog again. I slap Bela on the back and we chase it past the foreign department stores of the South Zone, close enough to hear it padding nervously a street over.
"Reusita! It is going for the Palace of Justice!" I whisper to Bela. Bela knows a short-cut that brings us quickly to the July 14 Square, and as we enter the grand empty space, I spot it, nosing the trash left by the tourists on the steps of the Palace. We are just by the bus depot, not a hundred yards from the dog and less than two hundred from its nearest exit. Certainly close enough. I slip off the dart gun and load it while Bela tries to suppress his exhilaration by jamming his hands between his knees.
I crouch by an ice cream stall, take aim, taste the moment - but not for any personal triumph. This is only a poor trapped creature, dimly aware of how it has been tracked and outmanoeuvred. I have never understood those hunters who claim to enjoy the thrill of this instant, the rush in seeing an animal brought down as if the world could narrow to a single contest. When I went hunting on the plains with my father as a boy, he taught me that the true pleasure is to be had in knowing that we are only instruments of the animal's fate. As the dog jerks at my single shot, stumbling a few yards before collapsing from the drug, I reflect how my will and abilities have been loaded by unannounced forces, priming my life for moments like this. To think otherwise would be a terrible dishonour to the dog's memory, for how could I consider myself any less a part of the wider scheme than the animal itself.
Afterwards, with only a few minutes before the curfew, we collect the dog and hurry out of the square, Bela yelping with the body over his shoulder. It is too late to go to Marta's, so I lead Bela between the great shore hotels and cross the expressway to the beach. There, safely out of sight under the boardwalk, my hands deftly search the animal's fur until I find the marks - on the belly between the legs, unscarred by the dart's point of entry in the flank.
Excellent. Damaged goods would have got me less, repairs would have increased my expenses. I could not have hoped for it to have been in better condition.
"I knew you would find the dog, Emil," Bela says, frisking the unconscious animal above the ears. He starts murmuring, "Don't speak to me of fado, no sire, tell me about the love."
"The other way around, Bela."
"It goes: do not speak to me of love, tell me about the fado."
"Oh yes, Emil! The fado! For fado is my sentence, and I was born to be lost! That is how it goes, isn't that right, Emil?"
Grinning crazily, Bela scratches the dog's ears as if he has been given his first pet. From the way he moves his head from side to side, I can tell he would like his ears to be scratched as well, yet his ears are so tiny, quite ridiculous on a man as large as Bela. With his block torso and long arms, Bela's frame has had such confidence in its own momentum that it has never needed ears to listen out for what could be ahead. If so, his body had misjudged badly. For if I had not come across Bela two months ago, he would have careened into some invisible wall sooner or later.
Bela had been living on the streets by the soccer stadium, hanging out with a gang of gypsy boy prostitutes who kept him as a mascot and as protection from the citywide pimps. A casual listening would have clipped the rest of Bela's life - AIDS eventually (even if he was not a prostitute yet), or working the dumps to the south of the city, or employed by a neighbourhood credit syndicate as muscle until the securistii came for him. No doubt, dead before his third decade.
It was luck that I found him, buying him off his patrons and taking him on as an assistant, but I suppose my father would say it was part of that grander order that binds us both. Whichever, I am glad I did discover Bela - the alternative would have been a terrible waste.
"Yes, Emil," he answers, smoothing the fur along the dog's back.
"We should finish."
With a nod, Bela puts both hands round the dog's neck and kills it with one sharp twist. I take the shaver from the tool bag Bela carries and check that I am right about the animal's belly. I am - it was not really a question - but without the fur, I can rub the thin grooves in the skin. The closely-packed concentric circles ripple outwards for three inches, branded deep into the flesh. My fingers touch the pattern and stroke it gently along the thin channels, and for a full minute, neither Bela nor I speak as we listen to the song playing softly under my hand.
It is strong. The melody rises above the wind coming across the shore, filling the air around us until I forget the beach beyond us, the wooden pilings of the boardwalk, until even Bela retreats before the music, and there is only the song, dissolving the moment, insisting on our submission. Only after the tears have caused my nose to itch and I have to sneeze do I come out of the trance.
"This is a good one, isn't it, Emil?"
I smile at him - he is getting much better at appreciating our pelts - but there are no words to communicate my feelings. The fado is too deep for speaking.
: : : : : : : : : :
It is pets day at the Muzsikas.
To get into the bar on the Downtown outskirts, I have to push through a line of formally-dressed gypsies crowding the small corridor, its walls daubed with fluorescent fado circles and telephone numbers, and ease past dogs on the ends of rope leashes, stray cats held tightly by gypsy girls in their First Communion dresses, terrified pigeons quivering in bird cages too small for them. Each animal has the special marks - the corrugated surface of rings - which their owners finger hopefully as they wait to move forward into the club.
Inside, DJ Nick-Nick has organized one of his famous disc-cutting sessions. The dance floor has been covered with picnic blankets and in the middle, two veterinary school student are putting the animals to sleep with injections and slicing the fado from the pelts on the bar tables with surgical tools borrowed from a hospital. The carcasses are disposed of in large canvas sacks which the Muzsikas staff haul outside while hired craftsmen press the fado onto vinyl backings on Nicolae's private equipment and sand the edges of the discs. The air stinks of glue and burnt plastic. On an upper floor, the gypsies stand outside the DJ's turntable dais and wait for Nicolae to play a few seconds of each record, giving full concentration to each song before deciding which he will buy.
"Greetings, Emil!" Nicolae hails down when he sees me. "Anything for me?"
Nicolae will buy from anyone - even cast-offs from the rag-ears - and I have supplied him regularly over the years, but he only uses the fado to mix with dance records for the tourists on his club weekends. "No, not today," I tell him. I do not say that what I have this time is for a more discerning buyer.
"I have special business," I say, remembering Bela's crestfallen face when I told him he could not come this time. "Have you found anything?" I ask, nodding at the hopeful gypsies.
Nicolae scowls at the pile of discs besides the turntable. "Why do they always bring me cats? Easier to catch I suppose, but their fado are just too noisy, too - lazy! No hunger in the music. Maybe a few where you can hear the song, but -" His hand cuts the sentence off with a gesture of resignation. "Some days, you get nothing pure, you know how it is, Emil."
"The plight of all collectors, Nicolae." Pure fado is indeed difficult to find. In the ten years since they first appeared, the telltale skin marks have been found all over the city, but few have the melody, and fewer still the true song - that fado that can blur the boundary between listener and music and blot the world out for a moment.
We talk a while longer about the state of the market and the fickle tastes of the tourists before Nicolae returns to his gypsies. I take a drink from Sandor behind the bar and find a chair that has not been stacked on a table. It is early yet, so I have time to sip my beer and watch people come into the club. In spite of the noise, the bar has a few customers: off-duty militia, a taraf of musicians with their instruments in cases, salesmen trying to forget their day.
After fifteen minutes, a prostitute enters the bar, receiving insults from the gypsies as she bangs her way through with a bulging shoulder bag so heavy it almost drags along the floor. She ignores them and starts to pass from table to table, speaking briefly with the customers. Some here know the woman - they fumble their beers nervously - but all dismiss her, sometimes politely, more often with an angry word. She accepts the refusals silently, picking up her bag and moving onto the next table in an arc that takes her around the bar.
When she reaches my table, I decide to speak first and save her the humiliation of asking. "I do not want to fuck. Go away."
The woman continues to stand in front of me, her head slightly bowed, staring at her worn shoes, as if she has not heard what I have said. I am about to repeat myself when she says, almost inaudibly, "Domnule, please. Listen to my song."
My song. The realization that this woman is not a prostitute prickles down my back, making me push my chair back and regard her carefully. Now I can see she looks like an office worker - mid-twenties, pretty enough in a white blouse and black knee-length skirt, with her unusually neat black hair in a bob and a little lipstick to brighten her face. I cannot see her eyes, but from the lines in her face, the rigid cast of the mouth, I wonder how long she has been going into bars, lugging the bag with her.
It would be a simple kindness to indulge her so I tell her to sit. Even before she heaves the case onto my table, I know what is there. She has trouble lifting out the portable record player but I do not help her, understanding that this is a ritual that she has performed many times before and must do without help. The player is a new model, but its silver casing is battered and it lacks a bass knob. There must be batteries in the back because the woman presses a switch at its side and the machine warms up.
Then from a side pocket of her bag, she pulls out the record - just smaller than a seven-inch, unlabelled, one side grooved, the other smooth vinyl. I can tell it is slightly warped as she takes it from its dirty sleeve and lays it on the rubber mat of the player. She lifts the player arm to start the record revolving, places the needle down on the dried skin surface and sits back in her chair with her hands carefully folded in her lap.
We listen. She will not look at me so I close my eyes - how else can I listen to it? A fado will be clear and powerful enough to sweep the world from me, so why not embrace the song immediately. And I have no doubt that this woman's record is strong fado.
Very quickly, the tune pierces the noisy world, dislocating it, and I am inside the fado. In a hot room, the heating is broken and the water pipe is slowly scalding the painted wall. While the light bulb flares as if it is about to burn out. And the woman is crooning in a wavery, off-key voice. Lying on a bed in which she has often lain but rarely slept, surrounded by young families, bickering already, in the new, crumbling apartment blocks. Singing her one song, clinging to the song as the one thing she can trust with her weight, putting in the words when she knows them, humming across the gaps. With her eyes wide open but no longer able to take anything in, either out of charity or self-preservation. For the woman believes that if she keeps singing this song, she can bear the sound of the man slipping away without saying goodbye. Such a tiny sound, the door shuts with barely a sigh, but it rattles all the way down her heart. Is it really that deep, such a big hole? But no tears, the song will hold them off until later, and maybe if she never stops singing, there will never be any later. So she sings of a woman who has been left, who will be left, who is always left alone, and however deep she will try to root her vows never to cheat or be cheated again, it will happen again, and again, as she and the world grind against each other, like an ignorant dance, like broken limbs, and the only thing to join them across their breach will be the song. Until it is over.
At last, I let out my breath. Very sad. Of course, the woman must be very proud of her record. Is the song the past or a glimpse of her future? In the mystery of fado, it is all the same. Listening to fado is like a part of the world being uncovered, the discovery of a hard and unbroken line that runs through it. Most people live across these lines and can drift between them, their fados muddy with the noise of an unfocused life that wanders without direction or record across the world. But the lucky ones - they exist on the lines, and have no choice but to hold to the line as it draws true to its target. Their lives are compressed into a song, and they can sing it with satisfaction or grief, but they must sing it to the end.
When the needle has been scratching back and forth at the centre for a full minute, the woman finally replaces the record in its sleeve and turns the player off. She puts it back into the bag and steps away from my table.
"Thank you", barely whispered, is all she says.
Before leaving, the woman reaches up with her free hand to pull the black wig off her head and show me the scarred patch where she has been scalped for the fado. As she does so, the woman gives me a proud look, for no matter how bitter her song is, filled with curses at the infidelity of men and the weakness in her that drives her back to be betrayed time after time, there is an indescribable comfort in knowing that there is a fate that has been specially shaped for her.
For that is the joy of fado.
An hour after she has gone, the rag-ears finally arrive - two of them, preceded by a subtle rearrangement of the gypsies in the corridor as they part for the newcomers. The rag-ears are two boys, probably about thirteen, gangsteri dressed in fine American bomber jackets and expensive high-tops, paid for by the wealthy collectors to whom they have been indentured. Their ears are covered by felt hats pulled low over their heads, but the occupants of the bar stir restlessly nevertheless, coughing, shifting in their seats, tugging their jackets tighter. Of the many rumours about the rag-ears and their abilities, the one that frightens people most is the belief that they can hear the secrets of a life from the normal rustling of the body.
The rag-ears stalk the bar, and when they are satisfied they have marked the territory, they choose a table and wait for Sandor to bring them beers. I get the attention of one of the small orfani who carry messages between tables in tin cans and write a note. "Take this to the gangsteri," I tell the boy and pay him. When the rag-ears have read the note, they beckon me over.
"So you are the fadisto," the first one says. His sneer is mere bravado, so I concentrate on his colleague's expression. That look could be either admiration for a fellow talent or jealousy that I should be the one to find their prize. Ever since I had heard the news from one of my market sources that an unnamed minister in the government was seeking a certain melody, a special fado for his refined collection, I have been in competition with the rag-ears to find the pelt first. I would like to believe that my success was predestined.
"Do you have the song?"
"But you do not carry it."
"Can you not hear it off my skin?" I tease them though I am nervous at their animal unease. "The echo of it in my hair?"
The second rag-ear takes off his hat, releasing long black hair, which he pulls aside to reveal the altered ear. Pinned back, the fleshy rim and lobes are as large as my hand and studded with dozens of small reverberators. Polished brown bone - the rag-ears' amplifier - spirals into the inner ear, and as I stare at it, I can almost see the bone vibrate faintly as the rag-ear listens to me deeply.
Within a few seconds, the rag-ear is grinning and calls to Sandor for more beers. "How much?" When I give him my price, he frowns. "So little, fadisto?"
"The fadisto does not do this for money, Fonica," the other says, leering at me as he listens to the distant barking of dog fado on Nicolae's turntable. "Can you not hear it on him?"
"I do it for fado," I tell them both and order another beer from Sandor.
: : : : : : : : : :
"When are they coming, Emil?"
Bela rests his chin on his knees and starts rocking back and forth against the back wall of the Muzsikas. "It will be those rag-ears, won't it, Emil?"
"Yes, Bela," I say patiently.
"I do not like the rag-ears, Emil." Bela half-bites his kneecap. "They are like wild dogs."
When I do not answer him, Bela mumbles to himself, "Don't speak to me of fado, but tell me about love." I would correct him, but Bela is nervous, saying the next line, "Fado is my sentence," over and over as if it is a lullaby that will calm him.
By my watch, it is seven o'clock, the right time, but the wide expanse of the Piata Victorei has few stragglers after hours. Another five minutes go by, and Bela becomes more restless, but then I hear the signal - a savage yell that startles the Piata's remaining pedestrians, making them hurry away.
"That is them, Emil?"
"Yes. You remember what to do with the dog pelt?"
Bela nods emphatically to show that I can trust this important job to him and grips the package close to his chest.
I take a deep breath, shivering. "Are you cold, Emil?"
"It is nothing, Bela."
"Emil, take my coat. I do not need it, my body is hot. Super-hot!"
Before I can desist him, Bela has taken off the thick long coat he nearly always wears and drapes it over my shoulders. Such kindness. I have tried to return it as best I could. Small things. Normally, at my insistence, he has heavy bandages around his torso to stop the rash from spreading down his chest. Tonight though there are no bandages under the coat. Again, at my insistence.
"Yes, thank you, Bela."
Smiling, Bela stands up and lopes out onto the street, looking down at his feet as if this is the only way he can appear nonchalant. I want to look at my feet too, but my ears will not let me and I have to stare at Bela's back - at the overlapping rings that gouge his skin, looping over his shoulder, around his ribs, down his spine, now singing out to the whole world without the cover of the bandages. Such fado I have never before seen crowded into a single body.
As soon as he puts the package down by the lamp-post, Bela turns to scurry back to me but the rag-ears are upon him before he can stand up. Bela has a massive build, but there are too many of them, rag-ears screeching as their hats tumble and roll across the street. Bela tries to stand, carrying the weight of six of the boys, but four more pull him down, and another four hold his arms to be handcuffed, and another four secure a leg for the one with a hypodermic, and another four step out of the mail van that pulls around the corner. Poor Bela screams out once - my name, of course - but it is muffled by the bodies on top of him and drowned by the sound of his fado, reaching its climax.
As they drag his body into the van, they sing perfectly in gorgeous voices, "If you want to be my man, and always have me by your side, don't speak to me of love, but tell me about fado. Fado is my sentence. I was born to be lost."
I do not have to watch this, and through the tears, it is difficult, but how can I resist. The sight of a man discovering the truth of his destiny and giving in to its overwhelming force - is this not the beauty of fado?
Such satisfaction - especially when the fado is one's own.
That evening and every evening for the following week, I go to the Muzsikas and drink until she comes back again. I do not know if she recognizes me when she asks if I would hear her song, but I do not think she cares. She has lived with the fado for so long that nothing else matters.
When I have listened to her song, I put my hand on hers and tell her that she must hear mine now. As we lie in her bed afterwards, I ask her to trace the lines of the circles just beneath my shoulder-blades.
"Is its song not beautiful?"
The most precious sound in the world. A traitor's song. For my fado is to betray, and there is no sound more exquisite than the consummation of my destiny, fulfilled at last. And she nods, and sings her song to herself as I slip out of the bed and prepare to leave.
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