Prime Pastrami

Wednesday, 28 January, Year 7 d.Tr. | Author: Mircea Popescu

This is a translation of a Ion Luca Caragiale original (Pastrama Trufanda). It's probably the best Romanian short story.

In the port of Kavaleh, on the coast of the Arhipelagos - long before anyone had as much as seen a steamship - a great galley full of diverse merchandise and numerous passengers was preparing one morning to travel to the Eastern coast, to Jaffah in Asia Minor.

Among those numerous passengers was one Iusuf, a small trader bound to Jerusalem for small trades. He had climbed in early enough, to find a good spot, and had seated himself comfortably on his rug, out of the way of the sailors running around serta-ferta pulling on ropes and stretching out sails as is their lot on any ship about to depart, unbound, on the expanse of water.

Iusuf was sitting quietly and smoking his hookah, thinking now of the long road ahead of him, then of the home he was leaving behind ... When everything was almost ready, and the captain was climbing towards his spot so as to give the departure signal, suddenly on the shore, among the hum and bustle of the crowd - some on business, plenty merely there for the sight, like in any port when a large ship moves - there's a voice screaming :

— Iusuf! Iusuf! Where's Iusuf?

Before Iusuf could stand up to see whether he's the one called, and by whom, there jumps across the gap and into the ship, short of breath from all the running, with a respectable sack on his back, Aron - a jew merchant, neighbour and acquaintance of his.

— Good to have found you, dear Iusuf, says Aron; you're going to Jerusalem anyway, do me if you will a brotherly kindness... Here's this sack with some clothes — not heavy, not even twenty ocai — to take to my brother Shumen... you know where he lives. Will you ?

— Why wouldn't I ? replied Iusuf; it's not like I'd be carrying it on my back. On the ship there's plenty on room, from Jaffah to Jerusalem I was going to either rent a camel or an ass, whichever comes out more conveniently... I'll gladly take it.

— And say to Shumen, but do not forget! to immediately proceed like I have written to him with these clothes left from our father... and...

Aron'd have said some more, but the galley was swinging and starting to get away; he set the sack down next to Iusuf and jumped quickly out to the shore. The ship set off with full sail, but Aron's voice pierced a good distance :

— Take good care so you don't lose my sack!

At night, the traveller was well served by his friend's sack : he put it under his head, and the sea being calm he slept restfully until the day ; but the whole night he dreamed of eating salty cold cuts - from the strong sea air, of course. When he woke up, he had a great appetite, and again it seemed to him like he's smelling something. He had a coffee, he smoked some hookah. His hunger abated a little, and he rested his head on the sack once more. After a few minutes of that, he stood again...

"Man — he thought to himself — I've been on the sea before, but such grandiose scents... what could this be ?!"

When he bends over again to arrange his rug and his pillow, he gets the scent stronger. He puts his nose against the sack and it's quite obvious : that's the source. He opens it up, and what does he find ? No clothes whatsoever, but instead stuffed full of prime pastrami.

"Damned trickster that Aron... so I won't taste a spot of his pastrami, he lied to me and claimed it's a sack full of clothes."

And so thinking, his mouth started to water... He took his knife, from his own bundle a bit of bread, from the sack a decent chunk of pastrami. He cut a little bit off, tasted it... wonderful. Iusuf ate nicely, and tied the sack back up.

As the ship ran into contrary winds, even the occasional storm, the trip to Jaffah was about a month. All this time, Iusuf, now in the habit of good stuff, kept untying the sack and eating, and even selling, by the chunk to not bother with weighing, to other travellers that were hardier and could eat while at sea. And, of course, excellent merchandise, great customii, his pillow slowly but surely evaporated. By the time he reached Jaffah all that was left of the sack was an incredible aroma.

From Jaffah, Iusuf took on asses together with some other travellers and went over to Jerusalem. Whenever anyone gave him a taste of their pastrami, he always said

— Eh! Pastrami like what I've had on the ship, from our place at Kavaleh, that's pastrami! Here, please, have just a sniff of this wonderful aroma (and he'd shake the sack under their nose). Pity that I'm all out! You should have seen that pastrami! And tender.... and fat... a wonder! That's what I call pastrami!

Once in Jerusalem, Iusuf thought to himself :

"What good is going to Shumen with the empty sack ? His brother, Aron, either through carelessness, or for being hurried, picked up a sack of pastrami instead of the clothes ; or else, to keep it from me, lied to me. Whichever it is, have I eaten it ? Yes I have! I will pay it honestly to the man when I'm back to Kavalah and that's that... No point going to Shumen!"

And so he went to his business, and that once done he returned to Jaffah, and there boarded another ship and sailed home. On the way, he'd try others' pastrami, but smelled Aron's sack, and almost each time, to almost each and every traveller :

— Eh! If you want prime pastrami, come by our place, come to Kavalah — that's where we keep the good stuff... There's especially one guy, Aron, friend of mine, he makes it incredible... just see what great aroma... There's nothing like our pastrami, back in Kavaleh!...

And, once the sun set, he'd set his head on Aron's sack and dreamed the whole night of great pastrami, and great meals of it ; and in the morning, waking up, he'd smell his pillow and think to himself :

"First thing once I get home, straight to Aron! Get some pastrami... scorch it slightly on dying embers, but ever so slightly so it doesn't waste its salt. And Iusuf's mouth watered.

Once he's in port at Kavalah, you'd think it was the devil's own work! Who does he see first of all ? ... his friend, Aron! As if he knew he's returning and was awaiting him with four eyes wide open.

— Yo Aron! Why are you a charlatan ? Why lie to me about old clothes of your father ? Just so I won't taste your pastrami...

Aron suddenly went yellow, and shook as if afflicted with a sudden pox.

— What ? What ?

— How much did you have in that sack, man ?

But Aron was getting worse and worse :

— What ? What ?

— ... Because, honestly I tell you, like an upstanding trader that you know me... well... on the trip... I ate all your pastrami, and...

But Aron cried out one desperate cry, and fell to slapping himself over the eyes, hitting himself with fists in the head, pluck his beard and sideburns; he cries and he moans, as if some unspeakable horror had come to pass.

— What are you screaming like that for! No need to rise a ruckus! Just say how many oca it was, I'm in the WoTiii, I won't deny it : I'll pay to the last cent.

But nothing doing : the jew falls to the ground, rolls around, beats his forehead in the dirt, screaming ever louder, like going out of his mind.

— That's very well and good... Man! I'm paying for it! Don't you hear me ?

The jew stands up, in a rage, grabs Iusuf by the chest and off they go, techer-mecher, to the Kadiiv to be judged!

The Kadi inquires as to the matter at hand.

Iusuf tells the court his whole story, as it came to pass : that he at first thought the sack held clothes, that later, by the aroma of it, he discovered the trick, and found the sack stuffed with sheep pastrami ; and that like a man on a long voyage, he tasted it and... he ated it all. But he, honest merchant as he is, does not deny, and yields himself in debt to pay to the dime.

All the while, Aron cries and plucks his hairs.

— Alright. Man! — says the Kadi — if he does not deny, and if he promises to pay honestly to the last dime, what do you make a scandal for ? Eh ?

— He'll pay ?! screamed the jew... he'll pay ? What will he pay ? A father ? Can he pay a father ?

— What father yo! inquired Iusuf.

— A father of mine!

— What father! inquired the Kadi as well.

— Of mine! Leiba Grosu, who is dead... and Iusuf ate him.

— Who did I eat ?!

— The father!

— When, you nut ? When did I eat your father ?

— When he was on the ship...

— Your father was with me on the ship ?

— He was!

— And I've eaten him ? Me ?!

— You! You!v

— Efendi Kadi — said Iusuf — would it seem the jew lost his mind ?

— I'm not the one that lost his mind! screamed Aron; you are the mindless, for having eaten a father!

— Say this again. Which father ?

— Mine! Leiba Grosu, who had died!... Haven't I said it already ?!

— Uh... efendi... says Iusuf to the judge.

— Carnaxivi! Stop yelling, yelled out the Kadi. Sit put a moment, I'm not understanding anything anymore!... So, do you not say your father died ?

— He died!

— So if he had died, how was he to go about on ships ?

— He went!

— After dying?

— After!

— How, man ?!

— A father, once dead, swore to me I send him to burry in the holy ground of Jerusalem, where he wants to rot in peace... and I thought that bone doesn't rot anyway; I buried them here, and the meat I made pastrami...

Hearing this, Iusuf felt his stomach turn, and he in turn started with fists on his head and belly, and to bemoan :

— He fouled me, efendi Kadi! The filthy jew befouled me! Aman! He fouled me! What am I to do now ?

— Why did you eat! screamed Aron.

— Did you not say it's clothes ?

— So you have to eat clothes ?

— Why didn't you tell me the truth, that it was your father ?!

And the jew vey! and the turk aman! The Kadi, letting it all sink in, said :

— Yo! Thirty years I have been a judge here in Kavalah, for an ocean of people, with all sorts of disputes ; but so far nuts on your level, and a matter this bizarre, I have not seen. This one... you'll need to be patience... I have to think this one though.

And, after he thought and thought, he decided that :

The turk is to pay the jew, on the price of the day, twenty oca of prime pastrami, which he ate ; and the jew to pay the turk twenty lire, for having tricked him giving a sack of clothes that held no clothes, but pastrami, and not proper sheep pastrami, but jew pastrami.

And then, with a short turkish word, threw them both out.

  1. This is an ancient Middle Eastern unit of weight and volume (seen here in its Romanian spelling), roughly equivalent to three lbs / three quarts. []
  2. Custom is a collective word for customers, just like money is a collective word for coins. []
  3. This is the truth of the matter. []
  4. Ottoman judge. []
  5. Very bad man. Very very bad man! []
  6. From Turkish karnaksı. []
Category: Cuvinte Sfiinte
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2 Responses

  1. [...] them, some people can distinguish good phases of the moon from bad, and good days to plant crops or initiate travel from bad. You'd think their time is soundly gone by a few centuries, but I guess Greece sticks to [...]

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