Tofan Gheorghe

The portrait

Moldovan short story.
Author: Gheorghe Tofan.
English translation  – Ana Tofan
When the Soviet Union fell apart, creaking from its hinges, an unprecedented chaos appeared in the former Soviet republics.  Theft  –  the basic instinct of the soviet citizen – had increased so much that overnight, in many states newly called “independent”, there was barely anything left to be stolen.
Everything could be stolen so easily: cars, auto vehicles, farms and tractors, libraries, passports, nationalities, territories, rivers and ponds, shops, harvests, ideas, planes, stamps, phones and even buttons. As a matter of fact I know somebody who became a wealthy businessman after stealing a pile of buttons, actually all of the stocks, and later on, all those millions of colourful buttons, bigger or smaller, brought him a fabulous income.
Everything that was touchable could be stolen. At that time everyone had the habit of stealing; politicians, leaders, members of dozens of parties, national majorities or minorities, peasants and writers, presidents and janitors, doctors and frontier guards. In Moldova for example, even teachers were forced to steal, to be as everyone else, while university teachers established personal taxes for the exams and colloquies. The greatest danger that was threatening the young Moldavian state was that a new-fangled nation was blossoming - the nation of thieves. A survey showed that Moldova had the largest number of thieves per head of inhabitants; it also had the most corrupted justice system, and the most corrupted cops. Not by coincidence the new pretentious state acquired another unofficial name among its citizens and that was “a state of corruption”, who’s politics emerged from dirty hands. It would have been unrecorded fact in this smallish eastern European state, if at least one living man had never tried to steal anything, anything at all since the beginning of the country\'s independence.
However, there is someone I know who declared he had only stolen when stealing was handy. “Only stolen when stealing was handy” means that in fact that this citizen did steal something indeed, but only one thing. Otherwise, what could have this “Only stolen when stealing was handy” have meant, pronounced as if in shyness? But what exactly could a lowly clerk, from one of the auxiliary states of the previous Central Committee of the Communist Party of Moldova steal? Because this man I knew, his name was Mircea Pãun, was employed by the front office of the Party. Whenever I mentioned what he had stolen from inside of the Central Committee building Mircea replied evasively saying that the action I was talking about could hardly be called “stealing”. ‘In fact’, Mircea said, ‘it was just an object which nobody was interested in looking at, nevermind steal it’. Mircea simply took things just because no one else did. Had I not known Mircea, I would have believed the story about the unnoticeable “innocent object” that could mean anything at all. But Mircea is not a man of nothingness and, if there was the need, he could have squeezed money out of nothingness too.
He would buy the stolen object and then steal it, then he would buy something again and rent it afterwards, he would borrow at his turn, go to the countryside, come in the city, spend money but still have it all the time. So Mircea didn’t afford to grasp something unworthy, just from pure curiosity, taking something just because it wasn’t useful to anybody else. In fact, the truth is a bit different… In his last day of work at the Communist Party headquarters, while all his colleagues were stealing typing machines, computers or saloon cars, desks and chairs, engines and electric generators, Mircea, with his hands sank in his pockets, was tacitly saying good bye to the warm, comfortable place, to the fussy co-workers, to the landscape from outside the window. All in all, he was saying his farewells to the Soviet Union and was truely enjoying this unique chronological moment.
Precisely during that moment of nostalgia, lived by an adult mind, Mircea’s eyes fixed on the walls of the cabinet. The only thing that remained untouched by the troubling changes of revolutionary times was the portrait of Lenin.
Lenin’s serene eyes were glancing at Mircea, but this time they bore a tinge of blame, a glimpse of sadness that had never been revealed before. The frame of the portrait was sculptured in walnut tree, fancy, heavy with a dimension of 1x1 and a half. Mircea’s face suddenly enlightened and if Lenin had had some sensitiveness whatsoever he could have read something canny in the eyes of his champion. Mircea approached the portrait and started caressing it with remembered thoughts. After he touched the bald head and the firm shoulder of Lenin, he whispered in silence: ‘I will be your saviour and you will pay me back somehow’. When Mircea marched on the Central Boulevard with the picture in his arms, all the people walking by turned their heads in suspicion. Lenin’s monument had been recently removed from the Central Market with a crane and taken to an unknown destination.
People were asking themselves where was Mircea taking it, in a puzzled manner, watching the short man, who was carrying the great leader of the world Proletariat.
“He’ll probably throw it out”, someone replied. In fact, Mircea took the portrait to his place where he carefully placed it in his garage, on an isolated shelf. He covered it with a red velvet sheet, not knowing how on earth he could make some profit out of this socialist piece of art. As unexpectedly as the first drops fall from a suddenly appearing raincloud, soon, an idea came to Mircea. His neighbour, who had succeeded in keeping his position as a factory manager first with the communists and now with the democrats, asked Mircea one day: ‘Hey, are there any mice in you garage? Cuz’ I’ve lots of mice and I can’t keep anything in there because of them. They gnawed at my tires. I poisoned them but it was in vain.’ Mircea, who didn’t keep much in his garage, told his neighbour that he didn’t see any at all. The neighbour continued: ‘But what did you do to them Mircea? How did you make them go away? I’ve tried everything, I followed everything I was told to but they keep on coming and coming. Now there are more of them than they used to be’. Listening to his friend’s complaint, a brilliant idea stroked Mircea\'s mind. At first it was something vague, imprecise, but gradually it became so clearly defined that he almost shouted: ‘Dear neighbour, my mice have become yours now. I have discovered a method that eliminates all the rodents at once’. With these words, Mircea stirred the neighbour’s curiosity. He bent towards Mircea’s ear and asked him: ‘Tell me the secret, please, and I’ll take care of you if you do.” Mircea stood up, rubbed his hands, frowned then strained his forehead, looked at his neighbour from under his eyebrows and finally invited him into the garage.
‘Look, I’ll say it only to you, but don’t tell anyone, other neighbours may get upset if they knew what I have done’, whispered Mircea. Approaching the portrait he continued: ‘Do you know what I’m keeping in here under this velvet sheet?’ The neighbour curiously wanted to unfold the portrait, but Mircea stopped him. After a few moments of silence in which the manager of the factory seemed on the verge of exploding in his curiousity, Mircea muttered gravely: ‘Thanks to this very unique item I have no mice. They’re all gone now, even the smallest ones. They don’t come here anymore. Look for yourself, do you see any?’
The neighbour looked through the darkness and of course, he saw none. ‘Well… see, even the smell is gone. And what’s under that sheet?’ Mircea slowly uncovered the portrait. And there he was – Lenin, looking at them, not a speck of dust on his face. ‘This is my mystery! Since I’ve kept it in here, all of them run away. At first I thought they were all dead but it seems that what this portrait did to them was to make their blood run cold’. The neighbour swallowed his tongue, ‘If it is as simple as that, Mircea would you lend me your portrait for a couple of days?’ ‘Well, say I give it to you and the mice start coming back to my garage, what then? But if you insist… a co-worker of mine borrowed it from me for two days. It cost him 100 lei, but you know what?, he didn’t have any problems at all after that. Since we’re neighbours I’ll lower the price. You pay me 80 lei and I’ll leave it with you for two days.’ ‘It’s a done deal, Mircea!’ That evening the neighbor took the portrait, put it carefully in his garage, dashed inside and came back with a jar of wine, some homemade pastries and 80 lei. Mircea took the money and after one jar there was a second one. Two days passed and Mircea’s neighbour looked upset. On the third night he reluctantly greeted Mircea and told him: ‘You pulled a fast one on me, didn’t you? The mice are still there. It’s been enough for me and this story stays between us.’ And he returned the portrait to Mircea.

It didn’t take long for the neighbour to sell the idea to another acquaintance, a Russian drunkard who would fix people’s yards for a single pint. His name was Valera, but everyone called him \"Balera – the Jew\", because of his collapsed nose from numberless alcohol intoxications and his red and humid lips which hung down his face. This Balera was eaten by mice even in his dreams. His wife was always yawing and mowing because she could no longer live like that. To keep a cat would have been too expensive for them, so all they could do was to spread traps all over the house. But some! how the quadruped creatures surpassed them.  Still, if a mouse was caught, Valera would caringly take it out, knit its tail with a thin wire and let it roam freely to scare the others. Meanwhile, over and over, Valera would keep on repeating: ‘tvoiu mati’… Valera’s wife began teasing her husband when she discovered that Mircea had gotten rid of his own mice: ‘Go and bring that portrait back, right away! We are neighbours after all and he might ask you for less money. For once in your life, do something Valera!’
Valera, as selfish as any other devoted drunkard, decided to get a portrait of Lenin from somewhere else… He went to all the schools in the neighbourhood to see if there were any portraits left… he was fumbling the ground areas, sneaking into offices, making a mess in headmistress’ bureaus, until he finally found it! He met the sensitive headmistress of a Russian school who gave him the portrait from a classroom at the school. It was a small and old portrait. The ceremony of handing it to Valera took place in front of the class, in a very formal ambiance. Then, Valera brought it directly into his garage, and then he took it in his house, and then again, brought it back into the garage. After a few days, mice spread like fire. One evening, at twilight, just when Valera-Balera, holding the portrait, crossed the yard, he stumbled across Mircea: ‘What are you up to Valera?’ asked Mircea looking at the small Lenin portrait. ‘What’s the matter?, if you have mice it’s silly of you to think that this stone creature will wash the troubles away. How stupid can you be?’ Mircea invited him to come into the garage and uncovered the portrait. It had been painted in oil and had a distinguished frame. ‘This is one hell of a portrait!’ thought Valera, feeling overwhelmed. Mircea wasn’t leaving him at peace: ‘Be careful, mine is an original version, painted on panza, specially framed… Just look at his eyes. How can one be not afraid of them? Many others tried to find one like this, but not a chance at all. There’s something special about this one.’ And then Valera turned firmly to his neighbour and asked him: ‘How much do you want for this, for two days let’s say?’ ‘Well, you know Valera, to you, to my dear neighbour, in the name of the friendship between our people (Mircea was pretending to be a philosopher), I’d say... 50 a day.’ Valera hesitated for a few seconds and then left the room speechlessly.
Two days passed, and Valera didn’t say a thing about the portrait. He looked distressed and kept avoiding Mircea without explanation.
On the third day, early in the morning, Valera knocked on his neighbour’s door. ‘Let’s do it like this; you give me your Lenin just for one day, just one day, for 50 lei… here’s the money!’ And the portrait was given to him. Throughout that day Valera looked deeply into Lenin’s lively eyes and became somewhat dizzy. Valera tried a great jalousy that the beloved, grand and everlasting Lenin does not belong to him. Tears welled up in Valera’s eyes, which he rapidly wiped with his shirt cuffs. The desire to have the portrait just for himself soon started grew in his heart. This wish grew stronger and stronger until it became more important than the mice. An hour later, he packed the portrait and stepped out in the street. He walked two blocks until he reached Kogalniceanu Street in front of an art studio, an old one. On the door hung a dusty sign: The Association of Independent Painters. The painters looked at the Russian guy who barged in and then at the portrait. The guy was more than ready to get one of Ilici’s copies as soon as possible. A copy was needed … ‘Why is he in such a hurry?!’ The painters shrugged their shoulders and returned to their work.
\"Well, well! But what is Mircea doing right now?\" you’re probably asking yourself, as I was asked by many when I first told this story. He was accepted in parliament, in the same building, in the same office and almost in the same role as the one he had held in the Committee.
He brought the portrait back to his office, and hung it on one of the walls, right above his armchair. Every morning when he comes to work, he winks at Lenin, as a sign of friendship and consideration. When somebody meets him in his office, Mircea stands proudly with his head just under Lenin’s, and stretches his hand so joyfully and calmly, as he couldn’t be told from an American. As far as the secret of his youth is concerned, every time he simply answers by pointing at Lenin: ‘You know… he makes me feel the way I do now. He has magic powers which flow with energy, a remarkable source of health that washes any trouble away…’


All rights belong to its author. It was published on by demand of Tofan Gheorghe.
Published on on 02/07/2011.


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